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  • Literature, Imagination, and Human Rights
  • Willie van Peer

“the poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen”

Aristotle: Poetics, 1451a

Aristotle’s dictum has been of vital importance to the development of literary theory, and its significance can still be felt today. It is the foundation of the distinction we make between journalism and literature, between history and fiction. Literature, Aristotle proposes, is about things that could happen, not about things that have taken place in reality. Literature is thus inscribed in the realm of the imagination. However, imagination does not operate in an epistemological vacuum. A fictional text entertaining no relation with the world would have no meaning. Perhaps giants, dragons and witches do not really exist, and perhaps it is not really possible to cover seven miles with each step of those wonderful boots that Tom Thumb discovered. But we have no difficulty in imagining those things, precisely because they entertain an intimate relationship with forms and things, events and actions that happen in daily life. The details of the relationship between reality and fiction are less important for the present argument than the fact that fiction is embedded in our pragmatic attitudes. 1 Ernst Bloch has given this human tendency a name: The Hope Principle. Our desire for a better world expresses itself in hope, a distinctive feature of the species Homo Sapiens. The importance of the imagination in the project of humanity has received eloquent and systematic treatment in the philosophical work of Hans Vaihinger and Helmuth Plessner. 2 Imagination also gives impetus to history, because it drives us toward the realization of aims and plans that initially lived only in our hearts and minds: “Someone dreaming never remains in the same place.” 3 [End Page 276]

Similar things have been asserted about literature, by Horace, Sidney, Matthew Arnold, and others. Reading is supposed to make us better humans, heightening our awareness, increasing our sensibility, and thus indirectly guiding our actions toward the establishment of a better world. Sometimes noble motives are associated with this function. Reading literature, it is then assumed, makes the reader more socially tolerant, more perceptive about other humans, and more politically conscious. This is the so-called Edification Hypothesis. Anthony Savile sums up this view when he submits the thesis that literature has a unique power to make us understand the thoughts and feelings of other human beings. This ethical perspective on literature has been expressed since Greek Antiquity. 4 It will be remembered that Plato condemned literature precisely for this reason: because it diverts our attention from the real world, itself already an imperfect reflection of Pure Ideas. Aristotle rejects this view and develops a theory squarely opposed to that of his teacher. According to him, literature contributes to the elevation of mankind, to paideia. By showing us that which is possible, and by involving us in the inescapable passage of tragic events, readers and spectators are drawn into emotions of fear and compassion, emotions that lead to katharsis, a process that purifies us of megalomania (hubris), safeguarding democratic government and protecting us from unrestrained tyranny. 5

The Aristotelian view that literature has an edifying effect had been generally present in Western tradition till about 1800. Until then literature was viewed almost universally as an ethical category. Consider, for instance, the self-evident way in which Richardson prefaces Pamela: “If to divert and entertain, and at the same time to instruct and improve the minds of the YOUTH of both sexes: If to inculcate religion and morality in so easy and agreeable a manner, as shall render them equally delightful and profitable: If to set forth in the most exemplary lights, the parental, the filial, and the social duties. . . .” 6

The embarrassment a modern reader may feel when confronted with such overt claims to morality is largely a product of the nineteenth century, when literature came to be seen as a predominantly aesthetic category, eluding all attempts at moral categorization. This movement has resulted in a liberation of literature from moralism. At the same time, it has created nontrivial difficulties in thinking about ethical and political issues, so...

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pp. 276-291
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