It may go without saying that there are those who will never study, appreciate, or even perhaps consider literature as it is known in academic circles. There are those for whom the written word may have, at best, utilitarian purposes, and for whom any piece of writing beyond a technical manual should, at least, be a work of “non-fiction,” designed to impart a clearly stated morsel of information or worthy opinion.
Part of the explanation for this may coincide with the same general reason that some people never consider religion: the proponents of literature – as is sometimes the case with the proponents of religion – sometimes themselves make their cause a used-up, weary, and trying thing, and may remove from it all the beauty and potential which it might, in the proper hands, convey. Much like religion, literature has a transcendent value, and fulfills an essentially universal need.
After all, even the most ardent opponent of the usage of literature in his or her own life embraces forms which complete virtually the same need within him; that is, myths, folklore, stories, movies, television, and even song, occupy essentially the same place and function as literature in the human person, albeit in a form often immeasurably more crude. And, as hotly debated as the following may be in the milieu of post-modern and relativist academic circles, the need to convey truths and explore the human person through story and myth may reach its most sophisticated form in literature.
That, of course, raises the implied debate as to just exactly what constitutes literature. Some societies view poetry and theater as “literature,” could not film, or popular songs also be literature? Along that line of reasoning could folk tales or geographically-oriented stories and Maki 2 myths constitute literature? One runs back into the post-modern worldview when considering that, if the songs of Bob Dylan or the films of Bergman can be considered in any context to be literature, then why not the songs of Madonna or the films of Clint Eastwood?
These considerations are relevant as the illustrate that: “literature,” if defined as relating to the exploration of universal truths and the human person through written or performed language, is relevant in daily human experience. The American child utterly unacquainted with the tales of Little Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs, or Cinderella, is at a vast disadvantage even in understanding many newspaper headlines (a business’ success story may be a “Cinderella Story;” a poorly chosen infrastructure may be a “House of Straw. ” The list could go on).
But, more importantly – and herein lies the great importance of literature – the child may be in danger of lacking the basic, transcendent lessons that society collectively imparts to its youth through the themes of fairy tales: there is danger in the world; stay on the path; obey your elders…they might just know what they’re talking about; shoddy effort will bear out a painful reward; arrogance is often misguided. Again, the list could go on. Even then, fairy tales as literature are only a baby step towards grasping the ultimate value of literature as a whole.
While some literature function in a given society as a means of forming the parameters of moral uprightness and, essentially, seek to pass down answers, adult literature at its best instead seeks to ask questions that require considerations beyond the formal and accepted confines of social morality, even if at times literature may function in an effort to pull a society back to its forgotten mores. Literature as genuine art probes the human persona Maki 3 and, in order to function well, requires a reader open to growth and change, open to transformation and to a new and perhaps differing(even uncomfortable) perspective on reality.
This is not to say that literature does not propose answers to the questions it asks. In fact, literature, like much psychology, may infer that the answers are perhaps inherent in the questions themselves. Literature, has often catalyzed individual change (and it is perhaps indicative of the vapid individualism of the times that the effect of literature on the individual is so much touted, even in this essay, over literature’s relevance to society at large), but of social change as well.
Certainly in modern, western history, literature has helped usher in startling levels of social change, be it new considerations of race via the writings of authors like Twain and Stowe, or Upton Sinclair’s impact on something as seemingly subtle as the issue of food packaging safety. Of all the thousands of tracts circulated about communism during the early years of the cold war, what writings continue to influence readers to the degree that Orwell’s two works of utter “fiction,” Animal Farm and 1984?
What political speech concerning the dangers of modernism, both as philosophy and technical practicality, had the chilling impact of Huxley’s Brave New World? What but the well-told tale could arouse sympathy for a group as collectively ridiculed and resented as Depression-era dust-bowl refugees, as in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath? If one considers artfully written non-fiction a part of the class of “literature,” the list goes on. It is not treatises but human drama that propel writings like John Hersey’s Hiroshima or Elie Weisel’s Night, to name but a few.
What is most relevant about literature in such contexts is that it eschews rational argument in favor of its best representation of human experience, for it is most pointedly in the Maki 4 experience of a thing that the truth of it – the human reality of it – comes to life, and it is through experience that people are most transformed. The experiences presented in the above examples – and they are a microscopic selection of relevant examples – may not be those of the reader, but they, in a sense, become those of the reader, and enable the reader to share in some measure of the stories and experiences of “the other.
” If there were no other value to literature – and certainly there is more value to it than that! – that value alone is worth the effort required of literary pursuits. It may be telling, and perhaps a bit saddening, that it is less and less true that works of literature seem to change the course of social and economic events in the world. The post-modern world is becoming less and less a literate world, and television and film – among other mediums – are replacing the written tale, and even the spoken story, as conveyers of truth and means of questioning what seems set in stone.
Were it so that film and television, for example, sought to fulfill the same needs as literature – and indeed, at times they do – perhaps this would not be such a disturbing trend. But film and television, and now, following in their footsteps, much written “literature,” seek mostly to entertain, to lull viewers into a comfortable despondency and create a sense of need for consumption, all of which perpetuates the success of these mediums. A great many movies have been made based on literature.
Now I am not saying that this detracts from the value of moving pictures in society, they just lose something in the translation. Movies have time constraints that do not allow them to explain the hidden meanings of cultural differences that written literature can. The vacuous lack of effort required of the viewer by television points to the factor that may simultaneously be literature’s greatest value and its most daunting hurdle to many potential Maki 5
readers. That is, literature invites readers, at its best, to learn a new set of codes and means of digesting language and tales; it may require, as in (for example) opera, learning an entirely foreign collection of meanings, linguistic cues, symbols, and, in effect, a new kind of listening. But those who seem to most appreciate opera, much like those who seem to most appreciate literature, swear that knowledge and self enlightenment is well worth the toil.