Can great literature lead to great societies?
There is no obvious and direct link between democratic societies and great literature. As Joseph Brodsky correctly pointed out, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were all very literate men. That did not help societies in the countries they led. But that does not mean there is no connection.
Democratic societies, it has often been observed, need good citizens. Citizens who have not forgotten how important freedom is and know that to protect a fragile democracy—and all democracies are fragile—an alert and informed citizenry is essential. Azar Nafisi explained how books like the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were important as a consequence:
For this they need to know, to pause, to think, to question. It is this quality that we find in so many of America’s fictional heroes, from Huckleberry Finn to Mick Kelly in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. How can we protect ourselves from a country of manipulation, where tastes and flavors are re-created chemically in laboratories and given to us as natural food, where religion is packaged, televised, and tweeted and commercials influence us to such an extent that they dictate not only what we eat, wear, read, and want but what we know and dream. We need the pristine beauty of truth as revealed to us in fiction, poetry, music and the arts: we need to retrieve the third eye of the imagination.
Democracies can benefit from its citizens engaging in what Huck called “a long think.” Nothing is better for purpose than literature or art, or other works of the imagination. This is what Nafisi called “The Republic of the Imagination.” This is what allows us to live and avoid a smothery death.
In totalitarian societies people risk their lives to achieve this. The risks are clear and present. But even in democratic societies lives are at risk to, for smothered lives are not worth living.
People in totalitarian societies often appreciate the freedom to read much more acutely than citizens of democratic societies. But they are not the only ones. As Scout said in that wonderful book To Kill a Mockingbird, another classic, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
In the Republic of the Imagination, as Nafisi says, “We must read, and we must continue to read the great subversive books, our own and others.”
And in my opinion there is no more subversive book than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That is why it is a great book. Perhaps the best novel of all time. That is a possibility. It is my favourite novel. That is a certainty.
Tom Sawyer, who appears in this book at the beginning and then returns to wreak havoc near the end of the book, is completely befuddled by what he has “learned” from reading books. It gets Tom into trouble and more importantly endangers the lives of others, such as the slave Jim. He keeps insisting how they must conform to the books no matter how absurd and no matter how little he understands of what those books actually say. Sawyer is continually barking up the wrong reality tree.
Tom asks Huck, “Do you want to go doing something different from what’s in the books and get things all muddled up?” Huck agreed, saying: “all kings is mostly rapscallions…You couldn’t tell them from the real kind.” Huck’s conclusion was a sound one: “Sometimes I wish we could hear of a country that’s out of kings.” Huck would appreciate the wisdom of John Lennon.
We can think or we can die. That is the choice.