“The flesh is sad, alas, and I have read all the books,” sighed the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Today, the flesh is sadder than ever, and we no longer read any books. Adults don’t read anymore. They are reluctant to put books in the hands of children and teenagers. Moreover, having themselves lost the habit of reading, they prefer to indulge in a few films or series, thus accentuating the vulnerability of the soul and the spirit to the frank, direct, brutal, and unmitigated attacks by the cheap cultural materials that contemporary culture mass-produces.
The object of this article is to question the importance of general culture, and more specifically, of classical literary culture, or on occasion, cinematographic culture, in the construction of the personality and, if one allows us to play with the words of Flaubert, in “sentimental education.” The path we propose—that of frequenting great works, not always morally wholesome—is lined with thorns, but the learning of discernment has everything to gain in it.
The debate is old and eternal: are there bad books? Should we seek to discover morality in literature, or even in cinema? Yes, bad books and bad art exist. This is not a reason, in a Manichean sorting between the good grain and the chaff, to deprive ourselves of the legacy of great books bequeathed by the centuries, especially since culture, as a construction—and not as an inert asset warmed up in the microwave of family sociology, which softens the food and destroys the flavours—is a formidable school of discernment.
The preservation of the soul must not be done at the expense of an intellectual component. And yet, the danger of abandoning intellectual formation in the name of morality is real. This anxiety lurks in many conservative families who no longer know what a classical culture is, and who prefer to take refuge in the ease of “safe” content, with chronic recourse to nice American films on the family DVD player, full of good feelings, but which do not prepare for the complexity of life. A censorship by choice, but also, as we are aware of it, often a censorship by default: without having read, how can the choice be made to censor?
In this slow abandonment of culture, the responsibility is complex, and shared. Legitimate fear of the dangers of the world, compounded by the lack of inspiration to study in school establishments, reinforces the absence of generational transmission, and we find ourselves in a situation where the appetite for beauty is nourished with the placebo of pretty cultural varnish of a good-natured environment which should be “good enough.”
Western literature begins with the epic of an adulterer, with the Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer sings of the anger of Achilles, then of the lust of Paris, who snatches the beautiful Helen from her legitimate husband, Menelaus, and plunges the Greek world into the throes of the Trojan War. Classical culture—understood in the sense of Greco-Latin literature—tends today to disappear even from the best institutions. It has become an option for a handful, no longer a backbone of education. There was a time, however, when one grew up on ancient literature—an inexhaustible reservoir of heroic destinies intersecting with other, more questionable figures, acting as repellents that better highlight the virtues to be developed in the soul of the adult in the making.
Let’s not be stopped by considerations such as “young people today don’t read that anymore,” or “it’s inappropriate, they don’t have the maturity level.” The youth today still crave for greatness and can identify with the inner conflicts of a Cid or a Romeo. The teenagers today suffer from a double pitfall. Either they are infantilized, by being inundated with comic books or by expurgated and adapted literary versions—ugly and mediocre cultural material—or they are confronted too early to an adult depravity which spoils them. Some of the most famous television series, like the internationally-known Game of Thrones for example, submit them to images of extreme crudity and violence that can not enter their mind and soul without damage. There is however a third way, narrow but exalting. If our discourse will not reach the whole age group, it can undoubtedly touch some of them to one day feel, and respond to, the call to social responsibility.
We must therefore know how to trust great literature, which invites the deployment of intense and demanding feelings. The elevation of the soul of the youth suffers in the absence of great literary works; they remain constricted in an elementary vision of the world, of feelings, of relationships between people. Good literature obliges them to think about the complexity of the world, to refine their thoughts and feelings. Without the mediation of these books, the youth (and their parents) are left defenseless to the sway of instinct, especially in respect to love and sexuality.
Moral judgment in literature is all the more delicate because it is difficult to know where one should start and where one should stop. Should one refrain from reading Thomas Hardy or Émile Zola (which one can appreciate or not, it is not the object of the debate) because their stories present immoral profiles? Very often the work of art does not make a judgment: it presents situations. A few examples, taken in bulk: The novel (and the film, which is very faithful to it) by Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind—the character of Scarlett is as immoral as can be, destroying three husbands while dreaming of a fourth man, already married. But what a splendid lesson on the love of the land, rootedness, and the will to fight at all costs! Margaret Mitchell does not condemn Scarlett’s behavior in Gone with the Wind, any more than Homer and the cohort of ancient Greek authors lose time saying that what Paris did was right or wrong. We know that this triggers the Trojan War… and it is precisely there that discernment comes into play to draw a lesson from misleading passions.
The specificity of a great work is also relevant to its capacity to contain several levels of reading as well as several intentions of writing. An example may be seen through the couple formed by two books from Dostoyevsky—two books working together, i.e. Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. The portrait of a mad and evil individual, Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, ends with one of the most beautiful scenes of redemption in literature, while the figure of Prince Myshkin, initially conceived by Dostoyevsky as a figure of goodness, ends up plunging us into the darkness of human destiny.
Beyond the morality of the stories and heroes, perhaps we ought to consider rationing exposure to pages deemed too ‘raw.’ After all, to pass from immoral characters to licentious description would seem to demand caution, a step that one must be careful not to cross too quickly. But here also nuance is critical. Literature has loved to celebrate love, and the female body, for centuries. Since the times of courtly poetry, we know that the enterprise of medieval wooing, which consists in putting words on emotions, already enacts control over feelings and impulses. The arrangement of the words obliges the mediation, the elaboration, in order to create a beauty which will sublimate the instinct and its immediacy.
Are we capable today of still being sensitive to the turmoil that seizes Jane Eyre when she is pierced by Rochester’s powerful loving gaze? Will an adolescent girl feel a fire coming in her cheeks at the evocation in The Charterhouse of Parma of the hours stolen by Fabrice del Dongo from Clélia Conti, of which Stendhal says nothing, of which we know nothing, but of which we guess everything? Literature is the art of suggestion. It is infinitely less harmful to encounter in writing the expression of desire, or the love song made to a woman, than to scrutinize a coupling on the screen of a smartphone. What is at stake is the debate of the superiority of the written word over the image, the book over the screen. The written word stimulates the imagination while the image, reductive and normative, paradoxically destroys the imagination. And the impact of the visual is all the greater that it will be presented on minds not structured by an elaborate language. The brutality feeds on the absence of words, and the force of the image prospers on minds unaccustomed to the mediacies of language.
Is it a moment of utopia and a derisory struggle to hope to oppose Keats’s verses to the steamroller, Fifty Shades of Grey? Perhaps. But isn’t it said that when one has taken the time to discover good wines, one will be more reluctant to drink cheap ones?
Under our democratic skies, swept by the mediocrity of a globalized culture, we like to think it is still possible to believe in the power of great works, and to trust the judgment and the patina of centuries to immerse oneself in the beautiful, without unfounded fears and “useless precautions.” If the child (or teenager) does not understand everything, he can be marked by the beauty and grandeur of a powerful work to which he will return later, as when we read a poem of which certain subtleties escape us but whose beauty of language lifts us.
The author of these lines thinks back to her first discovery, when she was very young, of Visconti’s masterpiece, Il Gattopardo. I didn’t understand much, neither the stakes of Italian unity, nor Tancred’s heavy allusions to which answered the noisy throaty laugh of Angelica. But what an immense shock of beauty and intensity which was to accompany me for years! The ideal situation is for a parent to accompany the child or the teenager in his discovery, by talking about the books read, by watching the films side by side. Like any noble task of education, the work of discovering the classics obviously requires time, so as not to leave the child alone to face the power of the text or the story. This work is all the more demanding because it begins with the education of the educator. Let us not be afraid to read, to sow the seed: something will always remain. Moral awakening must be accompanied by ambitious intellectual research. This is the condition for a true cultural renaissance.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).