Why study literature at a time when India is increasingly heading towards industrialization? What are its utilities? Who is literature for? Who is capable of understanding literature? The following writeup attempts to address these concerns.
Why study literature?
Have you ever wondered what guides our understanding of life? What is reality made of? Is it simply an assemblage of stimuli which we gather simultaneously? Every human being out of 7.8 billion souls traversing across the earth must have pondered on the said questions. Some may call these existential mutterings of microbes, or some may interpret these queries as fundamental. It matters not to say the least in the grand scheme of things, if there is a grand blueprint that is. However, we do not make sense of life through placing ourselves in the grand scheme. We see fragments – your story is what you get to live and experience. The grand story is not for you to go through, it is a luxury of posterity. So, how do we cope with these apparently relevant questions? Literature shows the way.
What is serious literature?
Serious literature is a record of insecurities and aspirations of human beings across time and space. As readers you may find strong resonance with someone’s accounts, which in turn help you to make sense – you find a way to combat your feelings. You come to terms with yourself. So, what about a library then? It is a record of your cultural memory. How many of you try to go there? Not many I suppose. So, how do you tune into that cultural repertoire? You may choose mediums of expression which are available more readily – perhaps Netflix? Or, a popular movie? The issue remains that these mediums have not withstood the test of time, nor have they been approved by experts. Do you take medicines which are not licensed by the competent authority? You certainly do not! So, why shall literature be any different?
Answering the Question
Literature is a discipline, you cannot simply appreciate it because you have evolved from your neanderthal like ancestors, and this has given you the privilege to read and write. One of the utilities of studying literature as a discipline is this – it enables you to identify the good from the bad. You learn to identify superior markers of your cultural memory from the imperfect ones. This is one aspect of critical thinking. A person who can question literature and navigate through its labyrinth is capable of questioning the laws which define convention. Literature too is a product of convention – at times it obeys the latter, or at times literature may question it. However, you should not take my words at their face value. Let me give you certain relatable examples.
Scenario 1: you are in love and you are considering whether to propose your beloved. You are not entirely sure how she / he may feel. You may get rejected and you end up not proposing her / him altogether. The opportunity passes and now you are filled with regret, you are not sure whether you did the right thing.
Solution: When in doubt turn to the bard –
“So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharg’d with burden of mine own love’s might.
… O, learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.” (Sonnet 23)
So, you see dear reader, you are not alone in your plight. People have felt what you are feeling and people will continue feeling this way. You can combat your loneliness. Life does not appear too hopeless now, is it? Is this not good enough? Shakespeare, therefore, rises from his grave only to serve you as your personal psychiatrist – he has all the time in the world to listen to your worries and fears. He will not judge you. It is a safe space.
Scenario 2: something terrible has happened to you – a family tragedy, perhaps your cv was rejected at the site of your dream job, or perhaps you have discovered that you are an alien living among men and you do not really belong here! – therefore, you end up questioning the very will of the maker, the existence of God. You feel that nobody is really up there looking at you, and you are all alone in an unfamiliar galaxy, where you seem to exist by chance.
Solution: Tennyson attempts to capture the conflict of an entire era in his poetry. The uncertainty of divine revelations. He writes –
“So runs my dream, but what am I?
An infant crying in the night
An infant crying for the light
And with no language but a cry.” (In Memoriam)
No one can give you the answer whether God exists or not. You have to come up with your own! However, literature can certainly give you that space of solidarity. It is in our marrow to doubt the existence of an ever-loving, just Creator. We fear abandonment. But literature shows how even in our abandonment we are not alone. We have fellow abandoned creatures alongside us.
It is a discipline like any other, yet it is a discipline that tells a story while it educates. Let us remember those bygone days of our childhood – sitting by the lampshade, hearing our grandparents telling us fantastic tales of adventure and bravery, wisdom and kindness, love and fraternity. That’s how life began, so do you really think you will ever forget the essence of such an experience? You cannot! Literature nests in our psyche the day we start learning.
P.S. let your inquisitive friends and relatives know why you have decided to pursue literature by sharing this piece.