Freedom and the Humanities - The reader's freedom and the ethics of literature


Institutional Communication Service

11 April 2022

Today, we launch a series of insights on freedom, curated by the professors of the Institute of Italian Studies at USI. In this first issue, we asked Professor Stefano Prandi, Director of the Institute, to discuss the freedom of the reader and the ethics of literature.

Let us start from the concept of reader freedom. How should it be understood?

There is always a tendency to associate a positive but somewhat trivial value with reading. In school, we often heard the phrase "Read, it's good for you" as if it were a sporting activity. It is true, it is indeed good advice, but it must be clear that when approaching a text, in reality, readers measure themselves - and sometimes clash - with diversity, just as it happens when we converse with someone who does not share our opinions. The text can be considered an "individual" with a precise physiognomy, standing in front of in a non-neutral way. As Jean-Paul Sartre observed, it challenges us to respond in some way. It can do so because, even though it is different from us, the text speaks a language that is mainly common to ours. It evokes topics that concern us. Therefore, readers have the freedom to read what they like or even to stop reading a book that does not interest them. Still, they are also invested with a specific responsibility, consisting of a sincere and profound confrontation with what they read. Readers freely choose to welcome the text into their most intimate sphere. As George Steiner clearly understood, reading in this sense is an act of hospitality, an invitation to open our home to a stranger whom we do not yet know and who could perhaps disappoint us.

How does this dialogue take place in the literary text?

Literary language is not simply a recipient from which we can extract meanings at our leisure, as in a self-service restaurant. It is a real experience that can also bring about significant transformations in all of us. The literary text confronts us with possible worlds, with hypotheses of reality that, even if they are not true, are nonetheless plausible; in doing so, it exercises our ability to interpret facts and behaviours with which we could be confronted tomorrow. Therefore, the text is a gym where our intelligence, our intuition, and even our ethical sense are tested because we are often urged to make moral judgments about the characters and situations that the author has created. As Franco Brioschi has suggested, the interpretive act of the reader constitutes a crystal-clear example of "practical knowledge", that is, a form of knowledge that uses one's concrete individuality as an instrument of measurement. It is not only a matter of aesthetics: literature does not limit itself to adding another bit of beauty to the world, but questions itself, as Tzvetan Todorov has observed, "about right and wrong". By asking real questions, readers are exposed to doubt and not afraid to change their views. Those who seek only constant validation of what they expect and already know are not truly free. It is, unfortunately, what we have seen in large part of public opinion in the last two years, first with the pandemic, now with the war in Ukraine: these "ideas", if we want to call them so, are impervious to any fact of reality, remain unchanged even if denied by the evidence.

In his Poetics, a work that is the basis of all subsequent reflections on the power of the word, Aristotle had said: "Those who by their very nature are emotional are more credible [...]; those who are agitated and those who are angry are keener to be agitated, and those who are angry are more likely to be moved to anger"; poetics, therefore, Aristotle concludes, is the art of the "versatile" or of the "elevated": the first is "adaptable", the second is "inclined to emerge from himself". It is precisely in this open space, in this willingness of the "id" to cross the perimeter of its own boundaries to discover the new, the different, the other, that the ethical vocation of literature is fulfilled. As my teacher Ezio Raimondi wrote, in the dialogue between text and reader, something paradoxical happens: the more the former shows its diversity with respect to the latter, the more the latter intensifies the feeling of proximity and empathy with respect to what he reads: the experience of the writer, therefore, who is sometimes far away in time from the reader, is turned into "living memory". The ethics of reading is revealed here as an experience of freedom, which is accomplished "in full awareness of the other."

What role does this experience of the freedom of reading and literature play in higher education?

A decisive role. The word literature indicates a repeated and constant action that can gradually form our skills and vision of the world. Almost all the most important things in life grow slowly as trees. In today's world, young people find few opportunities to experience this "inner length" because everything is instantaneous, simultaneous and virtual. Every day, we are hit by a flood of contradictory and often unverified information: the risk of alienation or total rejection is high.
For this reason, I believe it is essential, more than ever, to give students back their legitimate right to be citizens in the domain of the word. Only through an awareness of the historical depth and the differences that bring meaning will they be able to face the challenge of complexity, overcoming the deceptive illusions to which they are continually exposed. In this way, they will be able to recognise and conquer their complete singularity as people. In conclusion, I believe that the most important thing that literature can continue to offer to society through educational institutions is an "ecology of the mind" (Gregory Bateson) that allows us to place ourselves at the proper distance from the chaotic buzz that surrounds us without isolating in splendid solitude. On the contrary, returning us to reality and allowing us to live it in a more conscious way.