What is this Thing Called Literature and Why We Study it Still


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Literature as common understanding suggests is a representative body of texts admired and appreciated for its formal properties as well as its thematic concerns, which most would term vaguely as artistic or even aesthetic. If asked on the relevance of literature the response would be that the study of literature is akin to appreciating the arts.

However, in the past few decades the notion of literature has itself been called into question by progressive theoretical debates, which if anything have made it impossible to decide what literature is and should be. The point that relegates literature to a subordinate position as opposed to the other humanities like history, is the problematic term of fiction. Today after the collapse of idealism, what we have in a strange twist of events is the return of the importance of language. Perennial questions like what is truth and reality are once again thrown up, this time in the study of literature. Where philosophy and later science, its successor have dominated this field of inquiry, literature seems to be this new platform for these very old questions.

Literature in the mid 20th century moved against its detractors in calling into question all forms of knowledge, because all discourses utilize language inevitably as the main vehicle of communication. As a result, all writings from political theories to psychology are regarded simply as different species of writing and hence, come under the purview of literature. Since literary studies involves analysing writing itself, the field has widened to include other forms of writing instead of what is simply deemed as fiction. Although, the core texts of literary studies have remained traditional i. e. ‘fictional’ works, the methods and devices used are applied to non-fictional texts e. g. biography, journalistic writing etc.

Another point must be added in literature’s recent response to sceptics and that is, since all writing must pertain to a recognisable form of expression, the question remains then, how valid is the truth content of so called non-fictional texts, when it is governed by pre-existing rules of expression? This discussion is an apt example of the fertile ground of modern literary theory, in particular, the relationship between language and experience. Instead on dwelling on these modern issues of how a discourse like literary theory evolved out of the confusion of other disciplines, perhaps a historical look at literary studies must be revived; not in a nostalgic sense, but one that provides a definable shape where the future relevance of literature can be sought.

The study of literature is the study of modes of communication. The texts that are analysed and discussed are literary texts. It can include any writing of stylistic merit and works that contribute to the body of human knowledge. The aim of which is to use this method of inquiry in other fields. I have just outlined a position of literary studies that seems novel but in truth, it is an older attitude.

The study of literature did not exist in the way we know it today. In some ways, it is a very modern discipline, but it can also be said to be one of the oldest disciplines. If we allow ourselves to include the oral tradition of the ancient world, where poets studied the methods of narrating ‘stories’, we understand there is a formal method to those ancient works. These poets had ‘formalised’ techniques in the form of rhythms and refrains, which were learnt and subsequently, performed. The fact that the earliest poets understood devices and techniques is evidence of literary methods. A modern may still make this association that the study of literature is connected to the act of performance in all its manifestations. Indeed, a craftsman must learn the tools of the trade to understand and preserve a tradition, which scholars, in the case of ancient Greece have attributed to Homer, but in the modern day context the study of literature has lost that affinity for creating artistic products. Studying literature does not necessarily result in the production of great literature (whatever that may be).

Literature in the ancient world was inextricably bounded up with social life. We know for instance that poetry was part of religious ritual, rites and collective history. In other words, literature had a social function in the ancient world whose dominant form was poetry, which communicated to the community various aspects of its tradition and history. But what purpose does it serve to our present age, when we can read history from books and learn about the world around us through the media? The answer to this question lies in the way we should receive and look at writings. To explain this I will touch on the academic heritage of literature.

The study of literature was embedded in another related discipline called rhetoric, which in its scope covered a range of topics that to the modern may be shocking. These include philosophy, grammar, history and literary writing. Although in the contemporary context it has acquired a derisive status as being ‘empty’ and persuasive rather than sincere, the ancient and medieval world regarded it as a discipline that encompasses a range of issues.

Central to rhetoric is the study of language akin to our modern day literary studies. If we move ahead to the Renaissance era rhetorical studies expanded into the area of studying the styles and forms of classical authors, including the ideas from Plato to Aristotle in the original Greek. This pivotal moment in Western history is what we define as the Renaissance and the approach is what is called humanism. In the curriculum of universities in Europe in the 14th and 15 the centuries, we have what is called studia humanitatis, the study of grammar, poetry, moral philosophy and history. Interestingly, professional rhetoricians considered these areas under the compass of rhetoric. Rhetoricians who specialised in the study of language whether for its use in political speeches or philosophy saw the importance of the mastery of style. Herein lies a very important point, the rhetoricians saw in language the capacity and potential of knowledge. In other words, knowledge and language are inextricably bounded up together. The world becomes the very words we use to describe it. This may sound very postmodern but its roots are arguably founded on an earlier tradition. Though those scholars believed they were discovering new things out there, they were in fact discovering newer forms of writing.

The key point here is that literary studies is embedded in areas which one may not associate it with. Rhetoric was not the study of highly ornate speech, something similar to the charge against literature. Instead, it covered a broad spectrum of interests. Of course rhetoric and literature are different but the resemblance is striking. The common denominator between both fields is the analysis of language. This does not involve cataloguing types of writing but it goes further into developing ideas from them. The impact of such an endeavour can be seen in the Renaissance period of the Western world. Language and the world of ideas are interdependent components and not mutually exclusive. When we say ideas, we mean all forms of knowledge, from politics to psychology. In the ancient world, the stoics for instance understood logic from language. Language thus is the basis of knowing and the study of which becomes of paramount importance for the development of thought in the respective fields of knowledge.

A separate branch then evolved from rhetoric, philology. This branch is involved in the study of the use of language and the root derivations of meanings from words. An important fact here again like rhetoric, it is the study of writings from politics, philosophy, scientific treatises etc. The eclectic selection of texts included in the study of philology produced sometimes astonishing individuals like, Friedrich Nietzsche, arguably the most influential philosopher on the 20th century who was a trained philologist. This shows the relationship between the analysis of language and ideas. I am not suggesting that literature is philosophy or politics, but on the contrary I am suggesting that literature informs other disciplines.

Today, in the study of English Literature, the analysis of language is what is studied, applied and researched. This is something that contemporary philosophy and theoretical perspectives are engaged with. Literature then is the study of human experiences as much as intellectual ideas of a period, civilization and culture. It then becomes apparent, that literature is derived from older academic disciplines of rhetoric and philology whose traditions are embodied in Literature. It is also pivotal for those studying other disciplines to understand a literary approach, which entails the analysis of language itself. When we compare this with the prevalent modern day stereotype of literature as a noble and elegant way to use up one’s time, we find a disparity between what the discipline offers and how it is regarded. For those still grappling with the significance of literature, it can best be understood as a meta-discipline whose application in other fields I believe is indispensable to the progress of human thought and development.

If we sum up the perspectives offered here in this modest piece, we find that literature includes any form of writing in its purview and it is studied for the purpose of evaluating stylistic innovations and accumulating a body of knowledge from writings. There is a third coordinate that I have failed to mention and that is the manner of reading the text. A text is never literary but is made literary by a reader. The study of literature is not a simple accumulation of devices and facts but it shapes our way of interpreting the world. Literary methods provide a fresh and creative way of looking at the world which is at once imaginative and disciplined. It is this strange marriage of the rational and irrational that proves to be challenging to those who embark on this journey. Moreover, what better approach can we be armed with in facing the realities of this world than with a paradoxical attitude.

Mohamed Jeeshan G. R http://www.idle-eye.com


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