An interesting article in the NY Times by Patricia Cohen about the usefulness of literature. There are reasons to distrust any argument that claims that literature is good for us, but this article is not very dogmatic:
‘Jane Austen’s novels are frequently constructed around mistaken interpretations. In “Emma” the eponymous heroine assumes Mr. Elton’s attentions signal a romantic interest in her friend Harriet, though he is actually intent on marrying Emma. She similarly misinterprets the behavior of Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightly, and misses the true objects of their affections.
Humans can comfortably keep track of three different mental states at a time, Ms. Zunshine said. For example, the proposition “Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate” is not too hard to follow. Add a fourth level, though, and it’s suddenly more difficult. And experiments have shown that at the fifth level understanding drops off by 60 percent, Ms. Zunshine said. Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf are especially challenging because she asks readers to keep up with six different mental states, or what the scholars call levels of intentionality.
Perhaps the human facility with three levels is related to the intrigues of sexual mating, Ms. Zunshine suggested. Do I think he is attracted to her or me? Whatever the root cause, Ms. Zunshine argues, people find the interaction of three minds compelling. “If I have some ideological agenda,” she said, “I would try to construct a narrative that involved a triangularization of minds, because that is something we find particularly satisfying.”’
Patricia Cohen adds: ‘To Mr. Flesch fictional accounts help explain how altruism evolved despite our selfish genes. Fictional heroes are what he calls “altruistic punishers,” people who right wrongs even if they personally have nothing to gain. “To give us an incentive to monitor and ensure cooperation, nature endows us with a pleasing sense of outrage” at cheaters, and delight when they are punished, Mr. Flesch argues. We enjoy fiction because it is teeming with altruistic punishers: Odysseus, Don Quixote, Hamlet, Hercule Poirot.’
I would say that It’s a bit more complicated. What about Raskolnikov? Or Julien Sorel?
And I’m not completely sure about Poirot but Don Quixote and Hamlet are definitely no do-gooders, or, to use the words of Mr. Flesch, ‘altruistic punishers’.