Is it true that you have to learn life’s lessons the hard way? I don’t believe that. In fact that maxim sounds to me like an excuse, a cheap rationalization that comes in handy for folks who know they shouldn’t take some destructive course of action but plan to anyway. The single note of wisdom detectable in this sentiment is applicable only in retrospect, not in prospect. If you have passed through a rough patch that wasn’t your fault (or even if it was), you will be well advised to take stock, to learn what you can about life and especially about yourself, from your experience.
But if you blunder on into the path of what you already know will be a mistake, you won’t even learn anything from the ensuing mess. This is because you will have made it a policy. Like the guy in the joke who thinks it unmanly to submit to the legal speed limit and looks at the sign and thinks “A hundred dollar fine? I can afford that!” You will be like the Sunday Catholic who, abusing the penance system, goes out carousing Saturday night, planning on confessing it all the next morning. It’s pure charade. And giving yourself the go-ahead to do something stupid is the same charade. And you’re the one who’s going to pay for it.
So what’s the alternative? Childish naiveté is no good. You do need to learn wisdom. But I think there are ways to learn that wisdom vicariously. Think of it as almost a good kind of cheating, copying from the paper of someone else who has learned life’s lessons the hard way. One way is simply to listen to advice from people older than you. Of course, there is an initial possible roadblock: you may be such a thick-skulled adolescent that you can’t see the value of someone else’s experiences. You may have to learn that the hard way, smart guy. As for me, I’d prefer to ask directions from someone who has already been down the road I’m embarking on.
And then there’s reading. Over the ages, many people have bequeathed us their hard-won wisdom in the distilled form of proverbs and aphorisms. The Book of Proverbs in the Bible is a prime example. If you read it sometime, even in a cursory manner, you may be surprised how little its advice depends on any religious belief at all. It does not contrast believers with unbelievers as other portions of scripture do. Nor does it contrast Jews with Gentiles or pagans. In fact, some of the material comes from Arab and Egyptian sources. That’s because the sayings concern themselves with life in this world. I guess you could sum up the gist of Proverbs in the words Jesus tells his disciples in the gospel: “Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.” And that’s part of the wisdom: one can be shrewd in the way of righteousness. You have to learn the rules of the game. You don’t have to cheat at the game. The Epistle of James contrasts “the wisdom from above” with “diabolical wisdom.” I should nominate Machiavelli and, especially, Saul Alinsky as masters of wicked wisdom: the hardball tactics of winning at any cost. They’re experts in diabolical wisdom; Alinsky even dedicated one of his how-to manuals to Lucifer, after all. Of course, I’m not saying there is a real devil—except for Alinsky and certain prominent followers of his in our government.
One need not get one’s ration of proverbs from the Bible if you cringe from all things religious like Dracula from the cross. Abe Lincoln or Yogi Berra will do. It doesn’t matter who said it. The only authority a proverb possesses is that of the ring of truth. You hear or read it, and immediately it crystallizes what you have learned but not yet correlated. You suddenly say to yourself, “That’s right! I should have thought of that!” “That makes sense! Of course!” And you go forward, forewarned and forearmed. You learned it the easy way from someone, it doesn’t matter whom, who learned it the hard way. Call it vicarious wisdom.
Nor does it have to be wise sayings. Traditionally, gaining wisdom was supposed to be the goal of reading novels. Granted, sourpusses have long condemned readers of frivolous novels as wasting their time on “worldly amusements.” Excuse me if I take a friendlier view of popular genres. I have for decades understood the moral value of superhero comics and seen the value of science fiction and heroic fantasy for expanding my imagination. But let me focus on “great literature.” Apologetic school marms have always tried to convince bored students who’d rather be out playing ball (or, today, taking drugs) that it was worth slogging uphill through Shakespeare or Dickens or The Old Man and the Sea because of what one can learn from them about life. And they were right, though one can hardly blame the kids for hating that stuff. They’re not ready for it yet. (I only know that reading Shakespeare is, for me, like reading a foreign language, whereas, when I see it performed on film, it is lucid.)
Great novels, those I as a nerdish fantasy fan regard as “mundane,” are libraries of other people’s lives. You as their reader are like a vampire devouring their lives and experiences. Or how about this? You will be just like God as some theologians view him: God experiences worldly loves, hates, ideals, losses and lessons, none of which come properly to him as an eternal, omnipotent Entity, through us, via his omniscience. You see, you’re like the deity floating above the mortal world. The novels and their striving characters are like earth’s ephemeral inhabitants, experiencing things precisely because of their temporality and finitude. Like God, you may never know the fear of the battlefield or the anguish of betrayal, or the satisfaction of achievement or the thrill of reciprocated love. Not firsthand. But others have, and you can siphon it off! You can experience it secondhand, vicariously. What a bargain!
Until Northrup Frye, literary criticism was pretty much secular homiletics (sermonizing), the job of literature instructors to edify their students as if the latter were a congregation. I love the Twilight Zone episode, “The Changing of the Guard,” starring Donald Pleasance as an elderly Literature professor in a prep school, forced to retire. On the verge of suicide, he is dissuaded by the ghostly visitation of several old students who perished in World War Two, taking to their graves noble ideals learned from the old man’s lectures in their youth.
Frye realized that literary criticism should be a study of how literature works, a grammar of narrative, figures of speech, symbolism, structure, etc. This is the approach I mostly take. Other critics examine literature for what it tells us about socio-sexual-political-colonialist assumptions which the texts embody. Some of that stuff seems to be political polemic, not really concerned with the text for its own sake. But I appreciate the approach. It is impossible for me to read Pride and Prejudice as its original readers did precisely because the cultural codes jump out at me in a way impossible for the intended audience who swam in that same sea like oblivious fish. And yet this enriches the text for me instead of impoverishing it.
So I appreciate the various modern approaches to literature. But I want to stick up for the school marms and the old-time Lit professors. Why not cash in on the life experiences of characters in literature (not to mention biographies and autobiographies)? Why reinvent the wheel? It’s not a question of shying away from the adventurous living of your own life. No, it’s simply a matter of getting a healthy head start.
So says Zarathustra.