A Literary Guide to Life: The Art of Self-Cultivation through Transcendent Literary Culture

Image of Cosmo & the enchanted mirror
Cosmo and the enchanted mirror, illustrated by John Bell. Image from ‘Phantastes: A Fairie Romance’ by George MacDonald, published by Chatto & Windus (1894)

She burst into tears, and, kneeling before him in her turn, said —

“Cosmo, if thou lovest me, set me free, even from thyself: break the mirror.”

“And shall I see thyself instead?”

“That I cannot tell, I will not deceive thee; we may never meet again.”

A fierce struggle arose in Cosmo’s bosom. Now she was in his power. She did not dislike him at least; and he could see her when he would. To break the mirror would be to destroy his very life, to banish out of his universe the only glory it possessed. The whole world would be but a prison, if he annihilated the one window that looked into the paradise of love. Not yet pure in love, he hesitated.

– George MacDonald, ‘The Tale of Cosmo’¹ in ‘Phantastes: A Fairie Romance’

It was about two and a half years ago now when a link to a compelling article landed in my inbox. And, from amongst the many others clamouring there, it swiftly seized my attention.

This article then was, and still is, entitled How Reading Makes Us More Human. And, in it, its author, Karen Swallow Prior, considers the question posed by another article published just a few weeks before it: Does Great Literature Make Us Better?

This theme then immediately struck a chord with me … and set me thinking about it.

I began reflecting then on the various ways literature has enriched me, and my life, and affected me for the better. In other words, and in copywriters’ terms, it got me thinking about, and reflecting on, the various practical (yes, practical) soul-enriching and life-enhancing benefits of timeless literature.

And so, before long, this, in turn, coalesced with two other significant elements of my life to form the basis then for our Cupid’s School theme.

Then cultivate thy mind with wit and fame,
Those lasting charms survive the fun’ral flame.
With arts and sciences your breast improve,
Of high import are languages in love:

– Ovid, ‘Ars Amatoria, II’, trans. Thomas Yalden

The soul-enriching and life-enhancing benefits of timeless literature

After considerable reading, thought, and planning then, I premised the literary culture aspect our Cupid’s School theme on my belief in the transformational power, or potential, of timeless literature.

Timeless literature, I’ve found, provides a uniquely potent means to help us properly exercise and develop our fundamental human attributes and potentialities.

Here’s how I put it then on the About Cupid’s School page:

Cupid’s School then is also inspired by the wider benefits of timeless literature in general.

That’s literature then that helps us to …

  • Imagine – ignite, expand, and liberate the imagination
  • Understand – evoke critical reflection, self-discovery, and heightened awareness
  • Relate – stimulate more enlightened communication and social skills
  • And Create – inspire creative living and artistry

That’s literature then that enables us to explore our essential humanity, experience, and potential. That’s literature then that can help us expand our horizons, standards, and expectations and thus start living (qualitatively) richer and (intrinsically) more satisfying lives.

These then, I think, are very real and practical benefits – and ones that embrace the whole person, and the whole the person’s potential, and not just the frequently stifling, or corrupting, demands of what’s (socio-politically or socio-economically) expedient.

What’s more, the degree to which these benefits of timeless literature are truly, or freely and autonomously, appropriated has, I think, much broader – and perhaps even cosmic – consequences. More broadly then, the extent to which these fundamental human attributes and potentialities then are truly exercised and developed in our lives … affects, for better or worse, the whole of humanity … or humanity as a whole, and the overall health thereof.

Properly administered then, timeless literature can, I think, be potent medicine … for an evidently ailing humanity. That’s a humanity then that’s reeling  – or is, otherwise, grotesquely intoxicated – from the noxious influence of a life-negating narcotic. And, that’s a humanity then that, more often than not, thus only sees its kind – and, indeed, itself – as a misplaced reflection in a fiendishly enchanted mirror.

As Ernest Raymond aptly puts it then, in his book Through Literature to Life, literature is the ‘life-giver’ through which ‘may have life, and have it more abundantly.’

Image of 'Dreams' decoration
‘Dreams’, decoration by William Heath Robinson (1872–1944). Image from ‘The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe’, published by George Bell & Sons (1900)

The timeless art of self-cultivation through transcendent literary culture

And so, this is the introduction to a series of posts I’ve written on the timeless art of self-cultivation through transcendent literary culture. In this series then, we’re going to explore some of the chief liberating and transformational benefits of timeless literature.

I should say at the outset, though, that this series is a sort of work in progress.

Originally then, I intended that this series should comprise seven posts. Throughout these posts, I intended to present a sort blueprint or schema, and map of the soul, for soul-enriching and life-enhancing literary healing and transformation. This then, I thought, would serve as an inspirational and epistemological basis, or foundation, for pretty much everything I’d publish on this blog.

Whilst working on this, though, I’ve often felt that, to rephrase an old metaphor, I’ve helped myself to a far bigger portion than I’m able just now to properly chew or digest.

So, for the time being at least, this series will comprise three posts, with the latter four remaining, for now, still simmering slightly on a back hob in the sweltering kitchens of my mind.

Pilgrim shadow image
‘He met a pilgrim shadow’, illustration by William Heath Robinson (1872–1944). Image from ‘The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe’, published by George Bell & Sons (1900)

A Literary Guide to Life

Here then are the initial three posts that, for now, comprise this series that I’ve entitled A Literary Guide to Life:

1) On the Meaning and Nature of Great Literature

2) On The Life-Giving Power of Literature

3) On Literary Transcendence and the Transformational Literary Life Odyssey

These posts then, I think, can help us cultivate, or help us begin to or begin to further cultivate, our intrinsic (imaginative, intellectual, social, and creative) potential thus start living (qualitatively) richer and (intrinsically) more satisfying lives.

And so, in the first post in this series then, we’ll start by considering the meaning and nature of great literature

  1. The Tale of Cosmo, a story within a story by George MacDonald (1824–1905)