It is easy for Lit majors to turn to each other and readily admit that sometimes the best way to learn about the world is through reading fictional books. Take this to pretty much any other setting and the idea somehow becomes laughable. If fiction is made-up and the mere creative whim of an author, how can it be any source of credible knowledge?
What I think puts this pursuit of knowledge–whether someone is reading for study or for pleasure–on such shaky ground is this imbedded presence of enchantment. Theorist Rita Felski delves into several claims about literature in her book Uses of Literature, among which are both knowledge and enchantment. In a rush of history, theories, and groups of critics left and right that leaves the reader a little baffled, the pervasive idea of the “Enchantment” chapter centers on this “need” of stripping enchantment so that literature becomes credible in studying it. “If enchantment is to be rendered a plausible concept for literary and cultural theory, it needs to be pried away from such romanic-messianic vision and acknowledged as part of modernity rather than antithetical to modernity” (67). Like many other statements in her book, swimming through her text makes it difficult to tell whether Felski is affirming this argument or just giving it for history’s sake.
Still, Felski seems to find enchantment important enough to devote an entire chapter to it. She lists an unbiased(?) definition of enchantment near the beginning, saying it “is characterized by a state of intense involvement, a sense of being so entirely caught up in an aesthetic object that nothing else seems to matter” (54). This response to the appearance of someone having “lost themselves” in a book is not just typical to critics but also teachers, parents, and virtually anyone who demands a reader’s attention. Anyone who has been gripped by a book has felt this and been irritated by it.
Having “lost ourselves” sounds like being too enthralled in a text to make judgments and uphold beliefs and opinions while reading it. But Felski does seem to argue against this idea. “Readers and viewers…are always involved in translating signs into imaginary scenarios, responding to subtle textual cues, filling in the blanks, elaborating and expanding on what a text gives us” (75). Everything else aside, Felski using “us” sounds like she’s more on board with enchantment than her critical peers. And this is what I think adds more weight to how she continues to talk about literature in the next chapter: Knowledge.
Again Felski goes through multiple perspectives, most of which see nothing like credible knowledge to gain from literature. But then she goes into this idea of negative knowledge. While I couldn’t quite get a firm grip of what she means, she does equate negative knowledge to the opposite of mimesis–imitation or mimicry–which appears to be backing up literature as something of worth in and of itself, and not just as a narrative’s adaptation of real life.
She then says that “Literature’s relationship to worldly knowledge is not only negative or adversarial; it can also expand, enlarge, or reorder our sense of how things are” (83). I loved that term “reorder” because it’s true, sometimes literature doesn’t give us new knowledge or facts, but it can reorder how we see the world. So does enchantment delude this, so that a reader might see things as “reordered” that are only fictitious manipulation?
I can certainly see an argument for that, but surely in this day in age manipulations–or mere poetic license–of a decent size would be debunked. Jane Austen’s books can pull a reader in and teach about the history of an era while we have in the back of our minds that the Napoleonic Wars were going on at the same time and aren’t mentioned. Téa Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” informs a western reader of recent events in the Baltics while entertaining an old man’s supernatural stories as “truth.” It may be impossible to sway some stoic people into the realm of literary enchantment and knowledge’s compatibility, but these two forces are, more often than not, the very drive that cause readers to become Lit majors in the first place. We are personally engrossed but always searching for personal growth.