‘A unique, portable magic’

This month the Editorial Committee of Songsoptok wanted to better understand the role, if any, of literature in modern day society. Committed to the promotion and diffusion of ‘good literature’, we are obviously interested to know whether our efforts are at all relevant for our readers. And as always, I am stuck. What exactly is literature? What is our ‘everyday life’ and is it the same for each one us? Of course, I get the drift of the idea but isn’t it important to start from some plausible definitions? So I opened my dictionary and went on the Internet and found a huge number of ‘definitions’ of literature, not all of them conveying the same idea. The definitions, in addition, range from banal to metaphysical and left me totally foxed for a time. But then, we have promises to keep and deadlines to respect, and so I just chose one that made most sense to me. “The definition of literature [is] up to somebody [who] decides to read, not to the nature of what is written” said Terry Eagleton, one of the best known literary theorists and critics of our times. In one masterstroke he does away with the inconclusive debates about the meaning and quality of literature, whether it is mimetic or disruptive, whether life imitates art (as maintained by Oscar Wilde) or it is the other way around. Just like ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, the meaning of literature is in the mind of the reader. ‘The only important thing in a book is the meaning that it has for you’ said Somerset Maugham, and Mr. Eagleton seems to believe the same.

So, basically, it is the act of reading that is central to the existence, importance or effects of literature on our lives or societies. Literature can indeed be mimetic, representing reality as it exists at a given point of time. ‘A tale of two cities’, ‘War and Peace’, ‘Tess of the d'Urbervilles’, ‘Brothers Karmazov’, ‘Middlemarch’ and a host of other famous books are firmly linked to the epoch they were written in. Yet they remain equally popular and relevant today, probably because they portray something that transcend time and space and is related to universal and eternal values and feelings. Therein probably resides the main characteristic of ‘good literature’- reflecting ‘the holiness of the heart’s affections’ imagined by Keats.

But the objective of this editorial is not to analyze the intrinsic qualities of ‘literature’ or what is ‘good literature’, but to guess at the influence it might have on our daily lives. Or not, as the case may be. Not everybody likes to read, for whatever reason, just like not everybody likes football or listening to the piano. All of us are forced to read things, whether we like it or not, in our formative years. One can’t imagine schools with school books or universities without libraries. This compulsory reading is to ensure that we acquire a certain amount of ‘knowledge’ that is required to obtain an ‘education.’ There is no debate about the utility of this formidable body of books that make us knowledgeable, gives us a vocation, a profession, and hence the means to earn a living.

Strangely enough, the generic term ‘literature’ is rarely equated with knowledge. “Poetry is more serious and philosophical than history” said Aristotle, and yet we read volumes of world history and no poetry. “Poetry is as exact a science as geometry; induction is as good as deduction” said Flaubert, but never in the history of modern education have geometry books been replaced by poetry, and never will be. Yet, our history, economics or geography textbooks can never make us aware of events and epochs as literature can. I remember my Economic History professor from college who told us to read ‘Grapes of Wrath’ to understand the Great American Depression, ‘Ten days that shook the world’ to capture the spirit of the Bolshevik Revolution or ‘For whom the bell tolls’ to comprehend the Spanish Civil War. I wonder how many university professors would refer these pure ‘novels’ to their students to learn about important world events?

Michael Mack, in his seminal book ‘How literature changes the way we think’, maintains that art in general and literature in particular is ‘a disruptive force, breaking up our fictions about the world we live in and showing us new possibilities for the future.’ Mack maintains that literature does not merely describe our world but that it also has the unique and underappreciated power to make us aware of how we can change accustomed forms of perception and action. Literature therefore makes us aware of what lies beyond our quotidian, tinges our own perceptions and prompts us to question and challenge. A young girl growing up in a conservative society reads about the fun that girls her own age have on the other side of the globe and starts dreaming about a freer life. A young boy reading about the adventures of other boys in mysterious Africa decides to see the wonders for himself when he grows up and fulfills his own promise by becoming a leader of humanitarian movement in Africa. I think that a lot of our hopes, dreams and aspirations are shaped by the books we read at different periods of our lives. Time and time again despots and dictators have resorted to burning books to quell independent thoughts and actions. Can any of us ever forget ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury?

What about those who don’t read? ‘A book is a dream that you hold in your hand’ says Neil Gaiman and dreams, as we know, are not indispensable for living. I cannot venture to talk about them because I don’t know what makes them tick, really. Films and television are substitutes, certainly. My video-game crazy son informs me that the fantasy world created by these widely popular video games are better than any book, because the players are the real actors and write their own story. The role playing games make each player put on the mantle of the chosen personage and the story unfolds through interaction between players. It could well be. But then, do these ‘stories’ make us dream, wonder, question, desire, hanker, condemn – do they give rise to a wide gamut of feelings and emotions evoked by reading – whatever the quality of the book?

“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly -- they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced” said Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World.” I would rather be pierced and buffeted by words, for better or for worse, till the end of my day. “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing” said Scout of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” An apt ending to this editorial, I think.  

Aparajita Sen


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