#53 On equipment for living

Dear Mat,

One of my favourite formulations of literature — as opposed to myth — is Kenneth Burke’s claim that it is equipment for living. Literature provides us with new perspectives and unusual ideas, it gives us discussions of moral quandaries, it brings new people into our lives, it defamiliarises the familiar and pushes the limits of language and thinking.

I agree with your four categories for why a work might have currency, but I want to focus on the second: survival value. Are literary works also equipment for survival? Perhaps not. For that, maybe consult a dating guide, a medical textbook, or a flyer from the sperm bank. I suggest that living isn’t surviving. Not anymore anyway.

Notably, most people don’t read literature at all. The majoritarian might say that it’s superfluous and can’t be any serious guide to living if most living people don’t need it. There’s also a strong tradition of book-burning, book-banning and resistance to the kind of arty-smarty literature that doesn’t simply recapitulate a community’s favoured myths. As recently as Shakespeare, even daring and creative authors were expected to restrict themselves to approved stories (for anything other than comedy). The instinctual fear is that it puts crazy ideas in people’s heads. Doubtless it does.

This fear, which cultural elites like me decry as philistinism, may conceal a hidden benefit that we would be unwise to hastily jettison. But cultural elites are a minority, who tend to get slaughtered when the majority take over and do away with all the effete weirdoes. Liberal democracy protects minorities from majorities. The majorities in a democracy can take care of themselves. But they’re also very sensitive. Even if they make up 70% they worry that the other 30% should be in line with them. There is a proud tradition of voting in men who make this happen via force. Does this tradition contain a hidden benefit that means we should preserve it? After all, it’s persisted and kept the majorities alive…

Back to myth. Unlike literature, myth is inert. There’s no tradition of overt criticism. Indeed it’s the exact opposite with major religions, where the hermeneutical tradition is solely about supplying meanings in the holy texts that save the religion. I have some professional respect for Philo and Origen, who to me are the two fathers of literary criticism, two of the best readers ever. They added more to Christianity than The Bible did.

Which brings me to my own original heuristic for judging a work as literary: how easy is it to read?  I mean that a literary text is easier to read than a mere myth or piece of pop cultural ephemera. Any text can yield up enough meaning if you bring enough resources, references, knowledge and ingenuity of your own. A truly erudite cultural theorist can read a bumper sticker and respond with an interpretation that touches on existence, truth, morality and other lofty themes. But that’s hard to do. Philo and Origen were able to find meanings in The Bible so recondite that you had to be Philo or Origen to find them, and so ordinary believers couldn’t have been getting these messages from the text. But if you read a great novel, you don’t have to try as hard — the author has done the heavy lifting for you. Hence literary works are “easier” to read (even if they’re syntactically difficult to parse and require some erudition to understand, but not to interpret).

Myth, meanwhile, is still beating the same drum. Not only are myths old, they’re derivative of other even older myths. Myth-heads like Jung, Tolkien, Campbell, Himmler (that’s right), Eliade, Frazer and now Jordan Peterson cite this as a strength: if they have commonalities they must really be onto something!* I have multiple problems with that — as you know — but here I’ll just say that at best they aid survival. Yet even the survival credentials are dubious, pertaining as they do to environments long gone. And because more recent myths (e.g. Christianity) are both too old to be relevant and too young to be tested, I don’t even think those myths are necessarily good equipment for surviving.

So if literature is equipment for living, myths may well be equipment only for dying (or at least for venerating the dead, including dead ideas). Revering them and even reviving them because they must contain truths we don’t fully comprehend is perhaps the death of falsifiability. What exactly happens that works to falsify myths when they don’t survive? Does it look like what we’ve seen happen in the last 100 years of Christianity being increasingly discredited and abandoned in affluent places?

Culturally elite,


P.S. I thought vestigial traits are super common in organisms… We have some (coccyx, male nipples, et al.). And beyond the merely useless there are plenty of encumbrances too, but nature buries its mistakes so we don’t generally see them. You want to know if we’re ever mistaken about traits in animals seeming like they’re useful but later being found useless. In a way, isn’t that what happens every time an environment changes? So what was previously adapted to suit a niche, is now a deadly liability in a new niche… I guess we don’t see this because the organism doesn’t persist. The survivorship bias in evolution is total. I know you’re reading Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and I don’t want to spoil it, but Dennett has a thought experiment called “the case of the wandering two-bitser”  which is very relevant here I think, see p.405ff.

*It strikes me that someone should do a comparative study of comparative mythologists and the hero’s journey they go on in finding justifications for whatever happens to be their own religious, political, or ethnic identity.

Also published on Medium.