Lit classes under attack? Stanford's Joshua Landy to the rescue

Joshua Landy says great works "enable us to clarify ourselves to ourselves." He defends "literature as Rorschach test, literature as simulation space, literature as participatory wrestling match."

Photos by L.A. Cicero Joshua Landy

Joshua Landy, co-director of Stanford's Philosophy and Literature Initiative, is the author of the forthcoming 'How to Do Things with Fictions.'

"Spending time in the presence of works of great beauty can powerfully change your life."

Strong statement. Relaxing in his Pigott Hall office, Joshua Landy, co-director of Stanford's Philosophy and Literature Initiative, can seem like a low-key kind of guy, but on that point he's bracing and unequivocal. It's a rallying cry for the defense of the humanities.

There's a good reason for his fervor; like many in the field, he feels literature is under attack.

In October, SUNY Albany – a university with 18,000 students and 57 undergraduate majors and more than 120 graduate degree programs – announced that it is axing its French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater departments. The move caused nationwide protest and sent chills through humanities departments across the nation.

That's not all. As universities abandon humanities requirements, class enrollment has declined. Unemployment remains high, causing students to focus on the bottom line when choosing a major. So how do the humanities justify their existence?

Landy, author of the forthcoming How to Do Things with Fictions for Oxford University Press, responds with a story. He's been teaching the Introduction to Humanities course titled Art of Living for years. After spending a quarter introducing ideas, philosophies and choices, he concluded the class by reminding the students that he had said nothing about his views; now he would finally break his silence.

"Here's my advice, straight from the heart," he told them. "Don't major in economics."

Landy laughed at the recollection, and explains he has nothing against economics per se – but it's not everyone's calling, and high enrollment may not reflect a passion for the subject.

Landy ended his "Art of Living" course with an impassioned call for students to consider majoring in humanities if that's what they love.

He cited Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon to defend the humanities: "It's not about you living longer. It's about how you live and why." He also quoted W.E.B. Du Bois, writing in Souls of Black Folk: "The true college will ever have one goal – not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes."

Universities often provide students with a one-time-only chance to focus on the Big Questions, said Landy, "to find out who you are and what you stand for. Is there life after death? Is there a God who is omnipotent and benevolent?"

"In a way, I suppose, I've always at some level been interested in the big philosophical questions. Most people are. If you dig deep enough, most people are."

Landy launched the Philosophy and Literature Initiative in 2004 with Lanier Anderson, associate professor of philosophy; it remains one of the few such programs anywhere. With the initiative, Landy hoped to capitalize on "an awful lot of interest in the intersection of literature and philosophy," an intersection that received enthusiastic support from such luminaries as the late Stanford philosopher Richard Rorty.

At a colloquium last month, Landy argued that literature needs to push back against those who say it is bad for you (it perpetuates imperialism, or capitalism, etc.), or harmless but useless (as Stanley Fish claimed in a widely debated New York Times column), or good for the wrong reasons (it helps overthrow the patriarchy, "thanks to a bit of wordplay in a sonnet").

"I think we need a better story," he told an audience of about a hundred. "We all need to have a story, a story that is both positive and plausible. And we all need to be circulating that story, as widely as possible."

Clearly, he was preaching to the converted. The library in Pigott Hall, the building where many language departments are concentrated, was not big enough to hold the crowd, and the discussion was moved to a hallway, with people poured onto the stairways and peering between balustrades. (Landy received a Gores Award for Teaching Excellence in 1999 and the Humanities and Sciences Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2001.)

The Cambridge-educated Landy rejected the notion that literature is morally improving. Instead, great works "enable us to clarify ourselves to ourselves." He offered "literature as Rorschach test, literature as simulation space, literature as participatory wrestling match." He advocated moving away from the "stranglehold of narrativity," which literature shares with biography and history, and turning to "a more lyrical mode of thinking."

Hans Ullich Gumbrecht at colloquium

Hans Ullrich Gumbrecht discusses his ideas with Landy during a recent colloquium on literature. The event attracted more attendees than anticipated and had to be relocated outside the seminar room in the hallways and staircase of Pigott Hall.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, a Stanford professor of comparative literature, offered his own defense of literary studies: "Sometimes, it reminds you of certain situations, about how good life can be." The Lake District poets, such as Wordsworth, suggested that it would be "fantastic if we could relate to nature in that way."

The late Susan Sontag, he added, called literature "an education of the heart": "It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you."

Gumbrecht, speaking in his office later, said few literature professors have Landy's background in analytic philosophy.

"Josh is a very different kind of intellectual. His intelligence is very rational and very practical," said Gumbrecht. "He typically doesn't have a big sweeping hypothesis. He's very logical."

"I think there's no one in this building – teachers or students – who wouldn't say he's one of our best people," Gumbrecht said, noting that Landy's 2004 Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception and Knowledge in Proust was perhaps the best work on Proust in the last decade.

Gumbrecht said that Landy presents literature as "an existential rehearsal," always asking, "So what is an author able to do? What can you get from it?"

At the colloquium, Landy offered an example from his forthcoming book, focusing on Jesus' parables, as told in the Gospel according to Mark: "The big mistake that people have made across the centuries is to think that what's on offer in the parables is some kind of message. But the parables do not seek to teach; they seek to train."

The parables, often obscure, were meant to move readers of Mark's texts from the literal to the metaphoric, Landy said, a shift that "implies that nothing we see is inherently significant, since the entire visible realm is merely a symbol for a higher plane of experience."

"To move away from literal language to figurative language is to move away from the body and to the spirit," Landy said.

"Literary texts do not bludgeon us into submission," Landy said. "They are not obligations but offers. They are not cudgels but weight machines. Their effects are neither automatic nor inevitable."

In other words, literature is a journey. "It's up to us how far we go," he said.

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,