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The Non-universality and “Culturality” of Literature Essay

Features that Makes Literature Uniquely Cultural and Not Universal By romance novels alone that are judged as trashy and unhelpful to the critical thinking growth of women and yet hundreds of such books are still hoarded, it is already quite evident that literature is one discourse in a person’s life that is deemed as necessary and important—if such romance novels can be considered as literature that is. Romance novels are known to contain sexual innuendos, hot coital sessions, shallow plots and character developments and other literary elements which can be regarded as being unliterary and even mortifying in the conservative circles.

For centuries, romance novels in all forms and genres have been created, edited, published, banned, exalted, and burned. Whether those banned and burned novels end up with such fate because they are considered to be too much for the general public for the taboo subjects they depict or because the books does not have any literary value, this could just mean that there are certain subjects that stirs scandals and controversies in particular settings and culture.

But a taboo subject in one particular culture does not mean that it is a taboo subject in other cultural settings—it could be something like the Theory of Relativity wherein something is applicable in one setting while it cannot be the same circumstance for other settings. It is because of this aspect that certain genres and forms of literature be regarded as unique only to particular setups.

Thus, literature is not something which is seen as universal that involves the entire human race—literature is something which can be judged as a discourse or subject that is cultural and universal the same way that it is only women who are majorly magnetized by romance novels compared to men and the same way that sex is something which is considered as taboo in Asian countries while the West nonchalantly discuss about it. Literature therefore is not universal for if this is true, then why is it that some novels, poetry or plays are majorly disliked by a group of people while another group of people greatly admire it?

If literature supposedly connects human beings and links everyone together with a “universal thread”, then why is it that people still have great conflict on themes, plots, dialogues and characters presented in books? Literature therefore is cultural and particular in a way that it embodies the language of a nation, the history of society, a society of a group, a culture of a country, the customs, traditions and practices of state. Thus, what is literature but something which is uniquely distinct to a culture?

Before a discussion on whether literature is universal or not, it should first be explained on what is literature. Literature is often defined as a produce from one’s imagination that has ascetic creativity and which reflects humanity in that one single product of humanity or ascetic creativity: “Stories from myth and legend persist in our culture because they evoke deep emotional responses from us, shaped as we are by those stories, often from a very young age” (Trupe 164).

Then, a written work that is fictional can be considered as literature but this definition is actually wrong and misleading. Going back to the subject of romance novels, can these books be regarded as literature when they so obviously do not contain any ascetic creativity at all? Just because something is ictional or imagined, it does not mean that it is literature. But at the same time, not all literature is fictional—are there not biographies, autobiographies, speeches and essays that are wholly true but are still seen as literature?

Maybe, literature is such a broad subject that it is indefinable—even John Spriggs who wrote on literary discourse and criticism wrote that literature should not be defined at all because it would restrict literature to a particular aspect (Easthope 168). But if literature cannot be defined at all, then it means that it is something which can cause confusion among people—academic and common alike. Eagleton though has a different idea on what can be regarded as literature. According to Eagleton, literature is defined by the particular language it utilizes.

He asserts that literature “transforms and intensifies ordinary language, deviates systematically from everyday speech” (2). Thus, any work can be regarded as literature if it uses a special language unique only to literature and very different form “everyday speech”. Going back to the thesis of the paper, if what Eagleton says is true, then it just means that literature is not universal since there would be people who would fail to understand this special literary language used in literature.

If the language in literature is uncommon and unique only to literature, then it uses a particular language which would distinguish it from other words that people use. However, there is a counterargument to this claim presented by Leech and Short (as cited by Simpson). According to Leech and Short, although literature uses a particular set of language and linguistics unique to it, it still manages to use the ordinary language in a way that it is just creatively expressed (as cited by Simpson 6).

In fact, what makes the literalists the same as other people is that they follow a particular set of rules the same way that a lawyer or journalist or doctor would be using particular vocabulary and sentence construction that is unique to their profession. Thus, literature is unique in the sense that it uses creative language but it is not unique in the aspect that it is the only discourse that is unique in using a different set of codes or syntax. It is Horace, who first came up with the idea that literature serves two purposes: utile et dulce.

That is, literature can educate people and be utilized by the masses (utile) and literature can be appreciated for its sheer ascetic creativity that brings out the beauty in the things around human beings—nature and human nature. Horace concludes that there are two purposes, literature is not something which can only serve one master—to either teach people something or to showcase its literary beauty—instead, it should be a balance of what literature is trying to aim for. However, modern literary critics and academicians believe otherwise: Literature should just either be a utile or be a dulce.

L. Insana on “Redefining Dulce et Utile: Boccacio’s Organization of Literature on Economic Terms” uses this argument on utile and dulce in trying to find out what Boccaccio is trying to express in his controversial Decameron that both teaches the public something and at the same time, it reveals a literary beauty that only Boccaccio can create (n. p. ). Thus, while the concept of dulce and utile may be something that has long been created hundreds of years ago, it can be applied even to economic settings as what Insana has done in the critique of Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Nowadays, the argument that literature is either a utile or dulce is not true anymore since literature not serves many other purposes outside utile and dulce. For example, literature can be a means to unite the world through form and content—serving as a means for people to unite in a single universal thread—something which is opposite to the thesis of this paper and something which this paper is trying to disprove of. There are conclusions that literature is connects people because it has the ability to link each culture and group not just by the means of language but also through experiences.

People are united because of literature exists to have the “same universal thread” with other literature. All in all, this is what literature is believed to be used for: “to give us a better understanding of who we are, and a greater ability to know others and thereby help us to understand others, not destroy them”. This universal thread opinion on the objective and form of literature is truthful in some way since the experiences of societies are almost the same as everyone else:

Works of literature consist of ‘human experience’ and so contrast with the texts of mass or popular culture; created by individual authors literature can evoke a ‘genuine personal response’ in the reader—as Leavis explains elsewhere (see Leavis and Thompson 1933), popular culture, collectively and commercially produced, is stereotyped, formulaic, anonymous and deficient in ‘human experience’. (Easthope 4) Each individual, no matter where they come from or what they do experiences the same needs, desires and wants to the person next to him/her.

People all suffer, people all feel happiness, people all have the capability to love and be loved and people will die one day. Thus, all the collation of hopes, dreams and fears are true no matter where you may go. However, the experiences of a society are still different from another. Though they do experience the same economic or political problem like the other societies and countries, their own experience is unique only to themselves. Literature, particularly fiction, conspires to human freedom: in this way it has a political effect.

But the vision projected by literature, its implicit philosophy, sits opposite the political understanding of the world. (Rolin 40) Thus, though a person in Japan feels the same heart ache as that of a person in Wales and writes the same kind of poem or prose that centers on their grief, it would still be different because of the certain cultural aspects that envelopes them. All in all, this is what is being pointed out why literature can never be the same for all the people in the world—because each group of people contains certain cultural influences and characteristics that are only unique to them.

Aside from language which clearly differentiates one culture or country to another, there is also the history to consider, the traditions and even the practices of a particular culture. Zipes clearly gives an example in how fairy tales of a country is used to determine the differences of the locale’s color and beliefs: Each village and community in Europe and in North America developed various modes of storytelling and different types of tales that were closely connected to their customs, laws, morals, and beliefs. (xvi)

The same way that a man tends to sway more towards the non-fictional forms of literature or the comic books and sci-fi, women tends to gravitate more to the romantic and whimsical forms of literature, there are also differences in how the literature of a village or community in a particular country in a very specific time would be different from another country in a altogether different time span. Though human experience is the same for everyone, there are still great and tremendous differences in human experiences that would make literature very non-universal and would instead be concluded as being very cultural.

A very specific example would be the language of a culture or a nation; Eagleton explains that literature contains a unique language to be identified with just literature, that such “literary discourse estranges or alienates ordinary speech” (2). However, he also points out that though ordinary speech is alienated, the said literary discourse also “brings us into a fuller, more intimate possession of experience” (Eagleton 2). Literature through the means of language becomes more complex and yet meaningful—something that each culture can relate to as they have their own distinctive features.

Another example would be in how a famous literary figure, Defoe has written fictional works that “are admired today…[and] can be found in the material of journalism he practiced in an age when the boundaries between journalism and fiction, fact and fancy, were less distinguishable than they are today” (Underwood 45). This example illustrates how any form of literature can imitate the life and time of the author making the literature one of its kind when compared to other literary works that also imitates the life and times of their particular authors.

But most credible as an evidence and sample to thesis is perhaps the case of how William Shakespeare embodies his play, Henry V as something that reflects the early English life, according to Schwyzer: Henry V is traditionally regarded as the most English of the histories, and hence of all Shakespeare’s works. The words ‘‘England’’ and ‘‘English’’ resound through the play, occurring more than one hundred times. Henry is constantly reminding his men of what they are or should be capable of on the basis of their Englishness, and he is himself referred to by the French king as ‘‘Harry England.

’’ (Schwyzer 126) What Schwyzer presents is not that the play was inspired by England or the life of England, but that it the play itself evokes or contains themes of what it remains to be seemed as English. This “englishness” as what Schwyzer calls it is another term for the existence of a national literature that aims to mirror what it means for a particular nation to be a nation. In conclusion, there is no universal thread the links human being together even of literature shows the same human experience for everyone.

Literature is not universal; it is cultural because of the many distinct features that are embodied in a literary work like language, way of life, background, etc. However, though literature is no universal, it is still an ongoing process of development and improvement that hopefully one day, does indeed bridge the world together and be called universal. Works Cited Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: an Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1996. Print.

Easthope, Antony. Literary into Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print. Insana, L. “Redefining Dulce et Utile: Boccacio’s Organization of Literature on Economic Terms”. Heliotropia 2. 1 (2004). Web. Heliotropia. org. 17 May 2010. Rolin, Olivier. “The Subtle Genius of the Novel”. The Review of Contemporary Fiction 28. 3 (2008): 40. Web. Literature Resource Center. 16 May 2010. Schwyzer, Philip. Literature, Nationalism, and Memory in Early Modern England and Wales.

New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print. Simpson, Paul. Language Through Literature: an Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print. Trupe, Alice. Thematic Guide to Young Adult Literature. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2006. Print. Underwood, Doug. Journalism and the Novel: Truth and Fiction, 1700-2000. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print. Zipes, Jack (ed). The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.


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