Corruption by Literature

Republics of Letters: A Journal for the Study of Knowledge, Politics, and the Arts 2 (1) (2010)
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This essay argues not just that literature can corrupt its readers—if literature can improve, it can also corrupt—but that some of that is our fault: by telling people to extract moral lessons from fictions, we’ve set them up to be led astray by writers like Ayn Rand. A global attitude of message-mining sets readers up to be misled, confused, or complacent (because they “gave at the office”), as well as to reject some excellent books. Ironically, the best way to make sure that literature sometimes corrupts is to pretend that it always improves. So maybe we should be more careful about ascribing universal moral value to literature, whether via empathy, training, or propositional content. We should be equally wary of a second kind of aesthetic corruption, one that leads people to judge ideas true merely because they are delightful. Aesthetic Pollyannas subscribe to optimistic theories because they're beautiful (literature always improves! how lovely!); aesthetic Eeyores subscribe to pessimistic theories because they're sublime (literature always fails! how cool!). Our only hope of getting it right about literature depends on us all resisting aestheticized cognition. As we saw above, there may be real-world consequences if we don't.

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Joshua Landy
Stanford University


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