Literature is not meant only to draw attention to evil, wrong-doing and atrocity so that it prepares the readers to face these in the real world. Literature also achieves something else.
Take one of the oldest effects of the literary. Accounts of the wonders of Nature figure in literary texts across the world. Such texts enable those who wish to understand ways of appreciating natural phenomena without the scientific explanation, gain insights into the harmonies and aesthetic splendours in it (‘to see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower’). The literary drives the imagination to make connections so that we see these states of being.
Literature is integral to aesthetic training so that we see harmony, unities and cooperation. Aesthetic training contributes to formulating methods by which we arrive at values of goodness or beauty. None of these qualities is immanent to Nature, humans or places. They are attributes we humans bestow upon them through systems and conventions of meaning-making (exactly as we have agreed that a red light at the signal means ‘Stop’ although intrinsically there is nothing in the colour red that says we should stop). Similarly, what values we rate as ‘good’ are imbibed through aesthetic training.
Mirroring yet Influencing
Naturally, these values change over the ages, across cultures. Again, Literature steps in. The Literature of the age reflects these values, but also subtly influences their formation. What was acceptable two centuries ago is no longer acceptable because accompanying social attitudes is a literary discussion and criticism of those attitudes. The idea that the human is a sentimental being and not just a rational creature — as proposed by Descartes — first makes its appearance in fiction, notably sentimental fiction, in the 18th century.
Ideas of nationalism did not emerge in political propaganda during the anti-colonial struggles in Africa and Asia: they appeared in literary texts. It is through the circulation and consumption of values embodied as themes and images in literary texts that public, even national, opinion is formed.
The experience of beauty drives us to share it. Elaine Scarry in her Tanner Lectures on Human Values titled, ‘On Beauty and Being Just’, writes: ‘Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people’. Thus, the experience of beauty in the literary text causes us to read it aloud to somebody, forward it to somebody, or simply quote it. For Scarry, the impulse to share beauty is foundational – it enables us to build common grounds across people, however temporarily.
The experience of beauty also makes us ‘to search for precedents and parallels,’ proposes Scarry. The architectural splendour of the now-tragically maligned Taj, the wonders of animal life in a NatGeo documentary or the textual representations of such in Literature – for instance, accounts of the terrifying beauty of the Sundarbans in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide or the beauty and power of birds in Ted Hughes’ poetry – motivate us to seek similar pleasures. This is aesthetic education, and serves as the foundation for the construction of human evaluative and meaning-making systems.
Beyond sharing beauty and seeking further examples of it, the literary also calls upon us to not only seek but create beauty. This could be as innocuous as singing in the bath – the quotidian use of poetry – or efforts at creative blogs. Our introduction to beauty drives us not only to seek more examples of it but generates a longing for beauty itself.
To return to Scarry once more, ‘no matter how long beautiful things endure, they cannot out-endure our longing for them’. It is this longing, rather than the beautiful object itself, that constitutes the human drive to practise and create beauty. Hence painters imitated Nature, poets followed painters, architects inspired painters, and in turn sought to reproduce the poetic in their work. These are instances where those influenced and inspired by beauty set about creating it themselves.
Such pursuits generate worlds within the literary that may or may not reflect the real world exactly. Instead, they set up possible worlds. The making of public taste for specific kinds of beauty, value, aesthetic style is the function of the literary.
Building Public Taste
If realism dominated the 19th century – wherein nothing was left unsaid, and therefore nothing to be imagined – the moderns gave us fragments from which to extrapolate and ‘only connect’ (EM Forster’s motto, articulated in A Passage to India). The construction of public taste is a political function of the literary. The literary sets up norms and ideals, even utopias. It tells us what humanity could become.
The production of certain aesthetic ideals across cultural practices in any age (music, painting, literature, architecture, films) can, and occasionally does, serve as a significant component of public values as well. Compassion, for instance, and empathy are values born of the public taste for sentimental or tragic, human rights-driven art/Literature.
What an age chooses to produce as Literature may determine what that age chooses to value in Nature, humans, and other forms of life. While none disputes the commercial-industrial angle to such productions of the literary, the advantage to the literary is: a text can always (be made to) communicate, in the hands of the alert reader, more than it may have set out to do. The aesthetic escapes, very often, the frames in which it has been cast by commercial and hegemonic social interests. To read diligently is to read for possible worlds. Aesthetic education via Literature may not save lives, but it tells us why life is important.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)