Torsten Pettersson: “Can Literature Help? Existential Anxiety and Fictional Perspective-Taking”

Arrangerat av Språkvetenskapliga fakulteten, LILAe

Can Literature Help? This paper emphasizes and delineates the capacity of literature for inducing perspective-taking, i.e. the reader’s opportunity of experiencing the ongoing here and now of a fictional character, including the speaker of a poem. Having presented a theoretical framework, it goes on to show this process in action in four poems from three countries exemplifying different attitudes to the existential question of meaning and purpose in life: transcendental-optimistic (Erik Gustaf Geijer’s “Natthimmelen” / “The Night Sky”); transcendental-pessimistic (A.E. Housman’s “The Laws of God”); immanent-optimistic (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Hymn to the Night”); and immanent-pessimistic (Tennyson’s “Oh Yet We Trust”). Whatever the stance of the poems, the reader grappling with existential questions may take the perspective of the speakers of the poems, thereby finding solace in a shared experience of the human condition. Relating this to the steep rise of mental problems in Western societies in our century, the paper suggests some possibilities for bibliotherapy.