Modern Literature is Never Harmless

In Stress in literature by Camilla

We often seem to think stress can be cured by mindfulness, walks on the beach and learning to say words such as “no” and “never mind”. But what if the literature has a better answer – if only it were taken seriously? In the first part in the series on how stress is expressed in modern Danish literature, you can read a critique of the importance of literature and the text “Time Oddity”

It isn’t rare for words like “stress epidemics” to appear in Danish media landscape. It also isn’t rare that various experts will guide us to ways and techniques with which to avoid this modern illness. However, in the effort to treat the symptoms and teach humans how to deal with still more pressure, we sometimes forget to ask a far more important question: Why is our society even organized in such a way where its inhabitants are constantly getting sick?

Take literature seriously!
Economic, political and sociologic models and theories combined with medical and psychological insights kan explain part of the problem. But being as the problem is as big as it is, one easily thinks that maybe the problem isn’t only long work hours, too many closed days in daycare of our children and twisted beauty ideals forcing us to spent all of our “free” time in the hamster wheels of the fitness centres.

One place, where we as society have yet not search for an explanation is literature. But literature, can in fact, so is at least my hypothesis, teach us quite a bit about the world we live in, however, in a radical different fashion than theories on society. It’s therefore time we begin taking literature seriously (again) as the culture critical agency that it is, has been and ought to stay.

The past couple of years cultural politics has stressed the opinion that literature to a still higher degree is just a form of entertainment. Today, we’re interested in ice-cold facts, connections and causality and quick fixes. We have a tendency of thinking that stress as a challenge for society can be resolved only by mindfullness, walks on the beach and the importance of words such as “no” and “never mind”. But stress is not an illness appearing only as a consequence of a population that doesn’t meditate enough. Stress is a reaction to a broken system – and has been so since the early stages of the production society.

And this relation could exactly be a job left for literature to explain; to show us how stress appears and works in a society and how its a part of a way larger and way more complex process.

Literature is contagious
“The dreaming of one person, will provoke the dreaming of another. The one’s manifested freedom speaks inevitably to the freedom potentiel of the other – especially when the state’s attractions illustrated effectively in literary media.”

So writes the German philosopher and professor in Art & Aesthetic, Peter Sloterdijk in Streß und Freiheit fra 2012. Literature is contagious, if its themas are carried out with convincing rhetorics and in an effective literary style. The literary expression is – when at its best – contagious and capable of spreading like virusses. And that is the reason why the reading of modern literature can never be harmless.

“Where it unobstructed can unfold its influence, a chain reaction will be triggered that in time will radiate the whole society, as long as subjectivity-attenuating measures are not taken” – a thought so enticing and terrifying all at once: to be able to start an epidemic through literature!

The effective literature
That this thought holds quite a bit truth can be testified by the many tryings through history to forbid certain books. If literature were that unimportant, like i.e. the brutal cuts in Humanities at the universities in Denmark seem to show, the dictators of today and earlier times would probably have cared less which books we read. And this is exactly what we need to remember in the reading of literature, namely its potential not only for criticism of society, but change of society.

The significance of the effective literature is never to be underestimated and never a matter of entertainment. And, is my hypothesis, vi can actually learn quite a bit more about our selves and society if only we start taking literature seriously. The effective literature can expose some of the underlying structures ignored in our everyday lives.

Of course, I’m not of that conviction that stress has spread as a virus through literature. However, I am very certain that literature can tell us something about its essence. That literature can be the mirror reflecting Denmark with its almost 430.000 people who everyday have signs of severe stress. And in that way the reading of modern literature becomes everything but harmless. For what if it shows a reality where treating the symptoms is not enough, but radical changes are necessary?

This essay was originally posted at Netudgaven alongside the fiction text “Time Oddity” by the Danish writer Lars-Emil Foder.