What Do We Mean When We Say “Narrative Literature?” Looking for Answers Across Disciplinary Borders



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Literature is non-instrumental
. Here instrumental is defined as having an immediate practical use. Literary texts are often said to be non-instrumental in the sense that they inhabit a space off disconnected from immediate use. They induce pleasurable and/or contemplative states that can be enjoyed in their own right. If there are long-term practical benefits (and these have certainly been proposed and theorized, they generally do not dominate attention when we speak of the experience of literature. Our sense of literature is rather that of a space where words, worlds, and ideas are at play.
Here, for example, is apiece of text that can be read as instrumental:
Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France. It is the simplest country to live in. No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason. If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money.
If I take this seriously and I am about to go to France, I will be sure to take along a good supply of francs in the right denominations so that I can make things go smoothly. But now look at the same text in its larger context:
Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France. It is the simplest country to live in. No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason. If you want people to like you, you have only to spend a little money. I spent a little money and the waiter liked me. He appreciated my valuable qualities. He would be glad to see me back. Hemingway, Sun Now a character emerges, his name is Jake Barnes, and he has just gone through a horrendous episode in Spain where his deeply held values of high conduct have collided with the disgraceful behavior of his friends. In all this, he has felt himself implicated. Worse, his unrequited and physically unrequitable love for Lady Brett Ashley has become even more unbearable. In short, he is bitter, and these words about the French are an exquisite index of that bitterness. Hemingway is a master of this kind of indirection. But the first point is that we are not looking for advice here, or anything of such an immediately practical nature we are instead enlarging our understanding of a character who lives for us inside the covers of this book, The
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What Do We Mean When We Say Narrative Literature
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Sun Also Rises
. The second point is that, depending on context, a passage without any internal changes to it can be read in two fundamentally opposed ways. It is as if we could turn a switch, releasing the text from its immediate practical application to the world outside the novel, that is, the world we live in.
What holds fora short passage holds for large, complex works. The very phrase The Bible as literature so commonly found in college catalogs, indicates simply by its existence that there is away to read the Bible that is not literary. The nonliterary readers of the Bible are the students in class who often give their professors a lot of grief. For them this book is immediately instrumental it is a guide it tells them what to do. It contains the Ten Commandments, which are known deterrents to violence in the classroom. If you want to find out what you should not eat or whether you should shave or adopt a homosexual lifestyle, you can consult the book of Leviticus. But if you want to read the Bible as literature, you’re going to have to disconnect it from this kind of immediate utility. So, you throw the switch.
Conversely, recent trends in cultural approaches to literary study have sought to drain what goes by the name of literature of much of the mystique of a space off by showing the many ways in which literary works serve social and political agendas. So-called literary texts operate, in other words, in much the same way as overtly instrumental nonliterary texts. For this reason, many of these critics are highly suspicious of the term literature precisely because of its mask of non- instrumentality. Their whole struggle is to teach their students to throw the literary switch from non-instrumentality to instrumentality.


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