I don’t notice the sky on my way to work. I couldn’t say what colors my neighbors’ flowers are. In fact, I’m not even sure that they have flowers…But if, as Scarry argues, the flowers in books are in constant danger of dying for want of the solidity of real flowers, then what is killing the real flowers? And what is the medicine? The analysts of literary effects from Edmund Burke through Viktor Shklovsky, from Scarry to the latest cognitive critics, have been distracted by formal features, structures, and techniques. The sickness of literary flowers may be a problem for literary technique. The sickness of living flowers is a problem for philosophy. And this philosophy, as I will argue, has been the constant practice of a literature that doesn’t want to imitate life, but to transform it.
[T]alk of universal themes glazes the eyes because such themes always disappear when looked at closely. And they do so because they have neither formal nor phenomenal properties. But we needn’t be detained by themes in order to soften the habitual detachment of critical reading. Neither critical reading nor philosophical argument has to forswear literary experience; indeed it is likely such experience has a form illuminated by each.