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REVIEW: Living with a Literary Sensibility

REVIEW: Living with a Literary Sensibility

The following is an excerpt from David Masciotra’s book-in-progress, Faith That Won’t Die: Death, Defeat, Sex, and Spirituality in One Rust Belt Town:

One of the most often repeated clichés in American culture is that life is about the “journey and not the destination.” Anyone with any familiarity with American culture, however, knows that it is an efficiency-obsessed, results-driven, success-centered utilitarian marketplace more than it is a nation. As a priest friend of mine puts it, “In America all that matters is you go home rich. You may go home neurotic and psychotic, but if you’re rich that’s fine.”

When I leave work I don’t go home rich. I’m currently a member of the oppressed minority known as adjunct instructors. I teach literature and writing courses to students in their late teens and early 20s who sense that, as Warren Zevon would put it, they were “in the house when the house burned down.” The majority of young people, for a long time, have viewed higher education as a printing press that after four years hands out laminated VIP passes to get them beyond the velvet rope and into the American dream of middle-class home ownership, career stability, and consumptive excess. Now, with reports of a depressed job market looming large, many of them feel that the bet they’ve placed, with government money that they will have to pay back, is less a roll of the dice than a turn at the roulette wheel. The very real possibility that they will graduate into not only a culture of debt—in which they owe thousands of money with interest—but also a closed door society—in which they cannot find good jobs to help them make those payments—terrifies them.

The recession has pulled off a miracle previously thought impossible. It has made American college students more cynical. Their questions are almost all utilitarian—“What does this have to do with my career?” “What is the point of this?” etc. When I asked them “what the point” of an education is, nearly every student answered with some variation of “to get a job.”


It seems that many college students are treating an education like they will treat the rest of their lives by judging it solely it on its merits of “success”—its quantifiably measurable result. An education is only good and worthwhile if it lands you a job. A job is only good and worthwhile if it lands you a big paycheck. The paycheck is only good and worthwhile if it can buy you expensive, trendy things. A relationship is only good and worthwhile if it leads to marriage, and gives you someone with which to share your complaints about work and the spoils of your paycheck. Always industrious, Americans are managing to turn the financial collapse into an opportunity to deaden a culture that already amplified the slogan, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”


Oddly and ironically enough, I’m in one of the few subversive positions perfect for undermining results-obsessed thinking and providing people with an antidote and alternative. I teach English literature at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill. I ask students to analyze, scrutinize and, most importantly, internalize stories. English courses are one of the few places where young people are made to read, consider and appreciate stories in which the ending is only one part among many. Within the narrative, the conclusion is penultimate, but not ultimate. No one will seriously argue that the point of reading literature is merely to see how the story ends. The story is a conduit for carrying across a certain feeling—a sensation—about an insightful moment in the characters’ lives that resembles a moment the reader could easily have. The reader can then use the intellect to understand that sensation and reach a conclusion about how he can live his life. That precious and rare moment of introspection, self-examination and self-criticism is why literature presents one of the finest moments for moral exploration.  


The opportunity for moral exploration emerges when people read stories in which details and decisions cannot be judged in financial terms or evaluated by precisely measurable criteria. Details and decision have value based on their moral merit, spiritual sustenance, and existential power.


Literature’s powers of relatability are enhanced by the empathetic compact within all good stories—something that philosophical or psychological theories do not have. An open-minded reader is in the position to empathize with literary characters and therefore consider complex situations that bear resemblance to their own from a variety of angles.


Not only are Americans encouraged to live their lives according to results-based thinking, but they are also encouraged to consume an endless amount of stories in which the result is the only thing that matters. Popular entertainment has very little story and follows a pretty simple and straightforward, linear, outcome-oriented narrative: “Who is the killer?” “Will the hero save the world?” “Will the couple get married?”


Then there are the petty political obsessions of punditry, which tally up points in the win and loss columns for President Obama, the Republican Party and the Tea Party as if these insular victories had any effect on the vast majority of the American people. Politics is today’s version of tomorrow’s history, and while that may interest some people, it will always fail to fill in the gaps in the hierarchy of historical fact. Historical fact moves along a continuum of progression and regression in which, again, the results are what really matter.


Fiction liberates the reader from that continuum simply through the fact that, as the name implies, it is made up. Just because it is made up, however, doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. The great promise of fiction is that it will tell a lie so marvelous it will contain more truth than what it is: factual. The freedom of not worrying about factual accuracy, and therefore not caring much for the result, allows a person to examine much more important insights within the story. It also allows a person—internally—to live moment to moment within the story. It allows that person to size up and scrutinize each detail, find its meaning and value, and take those meaningful enough and use them for sustenance and strength in her own life. Reading great literature gives a person more strength than pleasure because it contains a crucial education.

“Living for the moment” is a cliché in American life. It is something that most people, at one point or another, thoughtlessly repeat, but never take seriously when it comes to the day-to-day management of their own lifestyles. Most people are unable to take it seriously because no one has taught and tutored them into changing their way of thinking from American efficiency and utility to freer and more flexible moment-to-moment thinking and living.


“Living in the moment” encapsulates a concept that is better articulated by saying that people should live according to a literary sensibility. A literary sensibility approaches life with an eye, ear and heart turned toward creating meaningful and memorable stories. Life is therefore judged by its amount of great stories, and those stories are not made great because they end well. In fact, many of them may not have a satisfactory ending, but they possess something that is instructive or inspiring. They are life-enriching and life-affirming. They don’t trivialize life by relegating it to mere accounting, voting, winning or losing. They remove life from the worrying, planning, speculating and fearing. They return life to the living.


A literary sensibility is what, I believe, Jesus Christ was advocating when He said, “Take no thought for the morrow.” He wasn’t recommending apathy, but was expressing the freedom that is possible when surrendering to the divine plan and will. God’s higher order makes a lifestyle that embraces jubilation or catastrophe of the emotional moment possible. Jesus accepted Mary’s gift of the ointment, despite Judas’ larger, long-term concerns. Jesus wept for His friend, despite knowing that He was God.


Has there ever been a period of recent American history when such a worldview and lifestyle is more necessary?


My students will graduate college in one to three years and compete for crumbs in the worst job market in nearly a century, while receiving monthly bills from their government and feeling the pressure to matriculate into the middle-class lifestyle that their parents enjoyed with ease. They will watch the American political system distance itself from the concerns of their lives on a daily basis, while their own purchasing power and career prospects dwindle. The forecast is, sadly and unfortunately, inalterably bleak. Perhaps 20 years ago it was viable to judge the worth of a life by the size of numbers on a weekly check, monthly bank statement, and yearly salary. Now it is not only psychically harmful. It is insane. It is a road to disaster and recipe for despair.


Rather than outsourcing hope to public relations specialists who write campaign slogans, young Americans should create their own possibilities of hope by emphasizing their role as the subjects of their own lives, rather than the objects of history, and the members of God’s liberating order.


By not only reading literature, but accepting its mandate to live according to a literary sensibility that emphasizes and elevates story above success, memory above money, and sensuality above social status, young Americans can find their escape hatch from efficiency and utility-centered America. They could take that escape hatch to an internal setting where emotional gratification, passionate fulfillment and spiritual satisfaction are possible.


In Larry McMurty’s epic novel Moving On, the protagonist Patsy Carpenter is touring Texas with her deadbeat husband who dreams of being a rodeo photographer, but puts little effort into making that dream a reality. Her husband is neglectful, self-involved and, worst of all, boring. Throughout the beginning of the novel she wrestles with questions over how much devotion to this lazy and narcissistic man is good for her and how much is wasted energy. She’s caught between her own happiness and fulfilling her “duties” as a loyal wife. She’s tied her future to his and is waiting on results. Meanwhile, she is considering other opportunities for pursuing personal projects, relationships and stories that will add meaning, texture and richness to her life.


The husband has a habit of taking baths and pulling his towel into the tub to begin drying off before he stands up. Patsy has asked him to drop this annoying habit so many times she can’t even bring herself to say the words when she sees him do it in a motel room outside a rodeo stop. She simply thinks to herself, “I have a lifetime of wet towels ahead of me.” With that thought she decides that she will begin to live for herself. She develops a platonic, but emotionally affirming friendship with a rodeo clown and finds ways to independently express her creativity, identity and humanity.


As long as the broken system of American politics works only to preserve the culture of debt, closed door society and persisting inequality, my students, the rest of young Americans and nearly everyone else, has a lifetime of wet towels ahead of them. It might be time to take a cue from Patsy and Larry, and start living for ourselves, each other and God—in the moment.


David Masciotra is the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books). He is a columnist with PopMatters. He is 26 years old, and lives in Indiana. For more information visit

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