The Spanish philosopher George Santayana is perhaps best known for his sometimes controversial statement “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While often quoted, it is also sometimes dismissed because history doesn’t quite “repeat” itself–the circumstances and details are rarely quite the same.
On the other hand, Santayana’s larger point, that the similarities between historical situations and current situations have value, is widely accepted and even used in education and elsewhere. In law similar historical cases are used as precedent. In business classes and medical school cases are used to teach, and some fields, like psychology, are built entirely on individual cases.
So what does this have to do with literature?
Hugh B. Brown suggests in the quotation below that literature is a collection of cases that we can apply in our lives — in this case in marriage. The fact that some of these cases are fictional doesn’t seem to bother him–no doubt, I assume, because the best novelists seek verisimilitude; that is, they want their stories to seem as much like real life as possible.
God-centered homes for children
By Hugh B. Brown
Laws and customs represent only the external or social aspects of marriage. These externals do not reach the inwardness and depth of the problem that the individual person confronts upon the advent of his marriage. From the great poems, novels, plays, and books of history and biography, we find the psychological and emotional aspects of marriage have been discussed in all ages. From these and thousands of case histories, we are impressed by the fact that marriage is at all times, in every culture and under the widest variety of circumstances, one of the supreme tests of human character.
General Conference, October 1966
I wish we could claim that reading these “thousands of case histories” would automatically make for better marriages or better decision making, but I think the reader must be a more active participant for that to have its best effect. Unstated, but perhaps hinted at, in both Santayana’s dictum and in Brown’s statement is this idea that the reader needs to actively process the examples given for them to improve his life.
Still, I like the idea that literature can be seen as a collection of useful case histories. And I often wish it were cataloged that way, so that it is easy to find the relevant examples from literature for a specific situation. Such an index, were compiling it possible, would be a fascinating source of study.
7 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Hugh B. Brown sees literature as ‘case histories’”
Your post reminds me of the argument in Oscar Wilde’s small dialogue “Decay of Lying” that life imitates art.
In some whimsical way I subscribe to that idea 🙂
The paragraph you quote doesn’t seem to me to be saying that we can apply anything in our lives, but that the sources listed demonstrate that marriage is “one of the supreme tests of human character”. Did I miss something, I ask in all humility, as one who has learned in the crucible the importance of humility to marriage?
Mark, You are right. I thought the idea that we would apply case studies to our own lives was quite obvious. We’re told to do that with the scriptures. And our educational system does it with case histories in may fields.
Why wouldn’t we apply the case histories?
And by pointing out that literature can be seen as case histories, what else could Brown mean?
I think Pres. Brown would appreciate Bonhoeffer’s statement that it is not love that sustains the marriage, but marriage that sustains the love.
Well, the quote seems to imply that the case studies and literary explorations are of marriages under stress. Whether or not there would be anything positive to apply to one’s own marriage would depend on whether the people or characters in a particular item managed to develop solutions. Otherwise, the only application that comes to my mind is recognizing that your own or an acquaintance’s marriage is in some kind of trouble.
Mark, so when Brown uses the word “problems” in discussing marriage, he automatically means “marriages under stress?”
Sorry, I don’t buy it. I think each of us need to learn in marriage, and the reasons for learning could easily be described as “problems.” It doesn’t mean that the marriage is under stress or at risk. It does mean that in marriage we have to adapt to our partners to a degree, and change.
In any case, I think you are focusing way to much on him talking about marriage and not as much on the larger issue — what his statement implies about his views on literature.
I don’t care if he is talking about marriage or morality. When he says “From the great poems, novels, plays, and books of history and biography, we find the psychological and emotional aspects of “¦ have been discussed in all ages,” isn’t Brown saying what he thinks literature is about?
“Whether or not there would be anything positive to apply to one’s own marriage would depend on whether the people or characters in a particular item managed to develop solutions.”
I disagree. This statement brought to mind some beautiful Stegner novels documenting failed marriages (Remembering Laughter, Big Rock Candy Mountain, Angle of Repose, etc.) Husbands and wives suffer when they fail to forgive each other in these “case studies.” It is a powerful, practical, and profoundly Christian lesson.