Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Two arguments for literary relativism

estate fence through rainy windscreen

1. Greatness is not absolute. One person builds a cathedral, and another makes a table-fork. A cathedral is a far greater thing than a fork can ever be, but it isn't so good for eating with. In short, a fork is a better fork than a cathedral is. Even a plastic one.

(This argument is adapted, or rather misremembered, from something C.S. Lewis wrote.)

2. I am fond of wild flowers. A few flowers are special favourites of mine, but for reasons that I recognize as purely personal. Generally I have no need to choose among them. My interest in, and enjoyment of wild flowers goes along quite nicely without any thought of comparative judgment. Why then should a reader feel compelled to describe one book as better or worse than another?


The two arguments are complementary. The analogy in the second argument (i.e. wild flowers) is carefully chosen. Wild flowers don't have a use, or rather, their use is principally a matter for themselves. They may appeal to you, but whether they do or not, we aren't interested parties. As soon as we become engaged, for instance as gardeners or farmers, plants begin to take on comparative values. (Some become judged as weeds.) The argument "I am fond of people..." is not so self-evident since most of us are highly judgmental of people.

But the first argument specifically addresses use, and asserts that the relation of reverence to use is not simple. Indeed disuse makes meaning, as happens, according to Lars Gustafsson, with obsolete machines. And a Marxist view of art as surplus value would also be consistent with that.

Yoshino Cherry (Prunus x yedoensis) in the Moredon Tree Collection



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