Literature Matters Today


“Matters”! This is an odd word when used as a verb. Of course we know what it means. The verbal form of “matter” means “count for something,” “have import,” “have effects in the real world,” “be worth taking seriously.” Using the word as a noun, however, someone might speak of “literature matters,” meaning the whole realm that involves literature. The Newsletter of the Maine Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club is called Wilderness Matters, punning on the word as a noun and as a verb. We might say, analogously, “Literature Matters,” as my title does. In medieval Europe learned people spoke of “the matter of Rome,” “the matter of Arthur,” “the matter of Greece,” meaning the whole set of stories that lay behind Aeneas’s story, the Arthurian romances, or Odysseus’s, Achilles’s, and Oedipus’s stories. The verb “matter” resonates with the noun “matter.” The latter means sheer unorganized physical substance. Aristotle opposed unformed matter to form. This suggests that if something matters its import is not abstract. What matters is not purely verbal, spiritual, or formal. It has concrete effects on materiality, in the form perhaps of human bodies and their behavior. Does literature matter in that sense today?

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