A Whole Cosmos Of Experience

This week someone called me highly logical. It felt almost pejorative, and came as a bit of a jolt. It is a term that would not be among my first choices to self-describe, at least not until I began to study English and Comparative Literature.  A good argument is a wonderful, enjoyable indulgence.  Our tutors lament the tendency of students to describe rather than argue; my friend’s comment helped me to realize that comfort that comes with being a describer, rather than the thrill of a good argument. In past efforts I have enjoyed describing, and did quite well at it personally and professionally. Her comment helped me to realize how glad I am to be studying English and Comparative Literature. It turns out to be the perfect discipline for me, though I did not necessarily feel so confident about my decision in my first year of study.

In my first year studying literature was really for personal enrichment. But studying literature is quite different from just reading it.  Entering year one I could not have predicted the personal or professional benefits I now enjoy. The professional benefits are legion, but what fascinate me are the personal benefits, and even transformations in my thinking. It might be predictable to say studying literature enhances my enjoyment of life-long interests in disciplines like music, visual arts, history and languages, but it is really a bit more than that.

It is a bit more because, until joining this program, I did not really read fiction. History and historical biography were always my choice.  Since my old first love, visual art, has a very limited expression in Pittsburgh studying literature seemed like a reasonable replacement and extension of a broader, general interest in ‘the arts’.  This year, to my great surprise, my old reading favorites – history and biography – have lost their charm and place in my heart to fiction.  Even visual art and music have been eclipsed by literature in my esteem. But why, I wonder, has fiction suddenly become so compelling?

Fiction is so compelling to me today because I recognize it is an effective, valid way of conveying information. And not just any information or mere facts; it conveys the complex, elusive fragments of our humanity in a unique form of argument. Dear old syllogism, logic, and language. That might seem a little over blown, but, for me, it strikes at why people produce art in the first place. The process of creating and interpretation is a complex, disciplined endeavor for the creator and the audience. It is not always easy to articulate, communicate or understand; it prompts argument just like any abstraction will do. Studying literature is one glorious place where comprehending and expressing go hand in glove.   It is highly satisfying that, in the United States,  English majors are admitted to graduate schools of law and medicine in higher numbers than any other undergraduate discipline. The high numbers are attributed to English major’s skill in analysis and argumentation.

Analysis, argumentation and logic; who knew they would be at the center of art and creative expression. When I started my studies I wanted to read widely and learn how to write creatively. But I did not predict the importance of those rigorous disciplines to the creative process, or their link to the expression of emotion and the human condition.  ”The Economist Magazine’ quotes the great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s study of  19th century German art songs, or lieder: ‘The Leider, though they might seem mere miniature settings of mediocre lyric poems, contain a whole cosmos of experience.’ A whole cosmos of experience in a mediocre poem? Just imagine what must be contained in a masterpiece. Reading every single one and trying to understand how all that splendid experience is conveyed through literature seems highly logical to me, and worthy of a good argument.

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