The relevance of literature has assumed centre-stage in the wake of the challenges of extremism and intolerance that we are experiencing in society. The neoliberal model of education – which hinges on the sole objective of profit maximisation – puts values on the back burner.
One important caveat of the neoliberal model of education is the non-interference of the state. As a result, this model flourishes in the private sector in the absence of state monitoring. Since the core value of the neoliberal model of education is to amass maximum money, only those programmes are offered which are likely to fetch more money.
In this model, there is no space for the humanities subjects as they are not considered as profit-making subjects. We, therefore, see a skewed approach in higher education institutions as there are relatively fewer opportunities in terms of scholarships and jobs to students of the humanities.
There is a dire need to expose our students to various humanities subjects – especially literature. It is literature that, in a subtle manner, exposes the readers to a number of contexts and characters through a diverse range of literary genres. It also inculcates the most-cherished values of tolerance, empathy, sensitivity, understanding and acceptability among readers and enables them to recognise a diverse range of beliefs.
Before we explore the relevance of literature within society, we need to understand what constitutes a literary text. Is it the choice of a topic that makes a literary text? In the past, it was believed that only lofty topics can constitute literature. The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost are examples of books where lofty topics were selected and stories were woven around them. However, with the passage of time, this maxim was defied when writers started selecting ordinary topics for their stories and produced equally good literature. An example of such books includes Ernest Hemingway’s Cat in the rain.
Is it mandatory for characters to have a high social status for a book to be considered a literary text? In the past, we have witnessed stories of kings, princes and eminent persons who would constitute literary texts. Shakespeare’s King Lear or Homer’s Illiad are a few examples of this. This myth has also been debunked as ordinary characters have been portrayed as protagonists in most literary texts. Leech gatherer and Solitary reaper by Wordsworth are some examples of such texts.
Does specialised language make a text a piece of literature? In the past, it was believed that there is a distinction between the language of literature and the language of ordinary use. As a result, grand diction was used in literary text. But this myth was also challenged when we see literary texts using simple language – for example Hemingway’s masterpiece, The Old Man and the Sea.
Is it the intensity of the impact that a particular text has on the reader that makes it literary in nature? If the answer is in the affirmative, then what is the recipe that makes a particular text literary in nature? It is not just a single ingredient or a set of factors that guarantee the creation of literature. Instead, it all depends on how a writer creatively makes use of these ingredients to create the final impact.
Having looked at the dynamics of a literary text, let’s examine the three major different schools of thought in terms of the functions of literature. One school of thought firmly states that the essential function of literature is amusement and joy. As a result, the readers should read literature to seek enjoyment. Literature, as per this school of thought, is considered to be divorced from real-life issues.
The second school of thought propounds the view that literature is linked with society and should be a reflection of what happens in society. The third school of thought states that literature is not just a source of amusement or a mere reflection of what is happening in society. Instead, it is much more than that and should therefore aim to bring change in society. This school of thought is vested in the belief that literature is not a neutral entity but a highly political tool that is linked with politics and power.
Literature – as explained by Edward Said in his seminal book, Orientalism – has been used by imperialist powers to control the ‘other’ through the politics of representation by creating glorified identities of the colonisers and the stigmatised identities for the colonised. But literature can also be used – as suggested by Ngugi – for decolonisation and putting up resistance against the powerful groups of the society.
A politically-loaded question that is often asked is: what is the best literature? Usually, the most powerful group in the centre is presented as the producers of the best literature. It is expected that literature that falls within the periphery should emulate the canons of literature in the centre. This ‘melting-pot approach’ is challenged by post-colonial writers who advocated that the literature of the periphery is equally respectable and must be recognised and celebrated.
In addition to the plot, characters, setting and diction of a literary text, an important component remains the message of the text. This message is conveyed in a subtle and indirect manner and the readers internalise the message. Literature is different from crude propaganda and employs similes, metaphors and images to communicate in a suggestive manner. This characteristic of literature is an effective tool to inculcate important values of understanding, tolerance, care and empathy for others among the students. There is a pressing need to revisit programmes that are offered at our universities. Instead of attaching all perks and opportunities to the sciences, we need to promote the social sciences and the humanities. These subjects may not guarantee the maximisation of profit but will be crucial in producing discerning students who can challenge some of the taboos in society.
Teaching literature can play a central role in producing young people who have the ability to welcome a diversity of opinions and beliefs and advocate freedoms of thought, expression and choice in society.
The writer is an educationist.