23 June 2010

On Literature

Sometimes, I really do hate my brother. Hate him with a vengeance. Sometimes, he’s so goddamned to the point!

We were on our way to the airport, stuck in a jam in some hilly, upper middle-class suburb of Mumbai. One of those rare moments of bhai-chara when the two of us were actually talking without trying to ridicule the other. About literature, my future with it. For once Bhaisaheb had deigned to leave aside his condescension about the matter and approach it openly. A real chat.

“Yeah, I understand all that and I think if you work on it you can make out something good on those lines, but I’ve been thinking – and thinking as in not to make fun of it but seriously – what’s the use of all this? As in, what practical purpose does it solve?”

“Well, I think it’s not as much a matter of a utilitarian purpose as a choice. Just as people choose to do engineering or economics, people choose to do literature as well. Not just because there might be a career attached to it, but because they want to. For its own sake you know. I mean, everything doesn’t have to have a purpose.”

“But we are talking of a purpose here. It’s all very nice to sit and read and do all that stuff you’ve told me – analyse and discuss and stuff – but how does it help anybody or anything? How does it, in fact, help you?”

“Well, you see, the thing is that it’s not as much a tangible help as an intangible change in attitude and perception. When you can analyse things better, you become a sort of a better human being, better not necessarily in a goody-goody sense but as a person better equipped to handle the social realities of the day, better to distinguish in the given context right from wrong and to see the ways in which all of it come to be. In that sense, there’s not much of a divorce between literary theoretical and their practical application in the world of everyday reality and interactions.”

“Hmm…okay. But, the flowery language apart, why literature? Or how literature? What makes literature special as a career or a pursuit that any of this cannot be accomplished out of it?”

There it was. For all I was worth, I couldn’t think of a convincing enough answer. How is any of this – analytical skills, social commitment and so on – specific to literature alone?

It’s not.

One has only to look out and around to see that it’s not. Nobody in my family, for instance, has pursued literature as a career, yet almost all of them are as good debaters and, by their respective ideologies, social critics as any I’ve met. Come to think of it, even within the English literary and critical tradition, an overwhelming majority of writers, theorists and critics were never just in the business of pure literature. Chaucer, ‘Father of English Literature’, was a government servant and served the Crown in many capacities; Sidney, author of one of the first critical treatises in the language, was an active and ambitious courtier who fell to wounds in war; Milton, last of the poets, was forever first a republican and public officer; Dryden, first amongst the wits, was a practicing playwright and heavily enmeshed in the political machinations of the day; Fielding, great amongst novelists, was also a barrister at law and had a life-long connection with law enforcement; Blake, fieriest of Romantics, belonged to the working class and earned much of his living through his engraving business; Arnold, middle-class champion for beauty and light, was primarily a school inspector; Eliot, first amongst the Modernists, critic and poet, worked for years in a bank. The list goes on and on. Of course, we have a Pope, a Shelley, a Tennyson and a Wilde, but still, all of them professed some aim or goal for which their talents were occupied. Rare in this long history are figures like Gray, University dons who wrote a few poems and vanished almost without trace…

Yet, that alone seems the province of literature today. The ivory tower is not as much a tower now as a university campus, a place to meet, debate, lecture, critique and go back home to safety. Of course, there’s nothing wrong in any of this and in itself teaching is as good and rewarding a career as any, but still, the problem of purpose, of speciality, remains unresolved. What purpose does a literary training achieve?

Precious little, seeing the way things are.

Modern literary practice engenders the illusion of purpose, of a socially oriented goal which can through literature and literary pursuits alone be accomplished. We like to believe we have a purpose, an almost semi-divine sanction to carry out our activities within the sacred precincts of our universities without the need to justify it to those outside the know. This carries on regardless of the cultural materialism of recent years; indeed, it carries on regardless of ideology, for whether it be the propagation of beauty and light, a war against the philistines of commerce and science, or the battle for social justice and equity, the consolidation of isms and ists, literary practice remains by and large an eminently self-absorbed and self-fulfilling network of complex and dynamic interfaces and interactions, none of which actually predicate any obligation on its part to result in any tangible contribution or alteration to the exteriority from which it perennially draws.

Much of this can also be seen reflected in the ways in which we fashion ourselves as a class. Common prejudice holds students, scholars and professors of literature as all indefatigable writers (preferably poets, poetry being the call of the soul and we literary types being such soulful people), an elite class of scribblers who write, talk and walk a sufficiently chastised and sophisticated language. Yet, even a general survey across many of the literary bastions of the day – and most certainly in this University of Delhi – will in my opinion overturn this prejudice: few are those who write and fewer still who choose to take it seriously – and even then they’re amateurs. Few, too, are those who choose literature as a career, as active, professional writers or as revealers of its sacred mysteries, teachers. For many of these latter too, much of the writing that they indulge in is in the creation of papers and commentaries, critiques upon works, or on critiques on works. Undoubtedly, this requires ingenuity and much hard work and perseverance and is in keeping with their professional calling; but, it is still secondary if one were to conceive literary production in terms of (so-called) creative work being primary and critical commentary on it secondary.

Yet, even these are not specific to or concomitant upon a literary training.

Indeed, for even though disciplines have by and large been ossified, there exist individuals who’ve managed to bridge the disciplinary divide and produce works or ideas of considerable worth. Nothing, for example, stops an eager and curious engineering graduate from picking up a Derrida or Joyce off the shelf and adding those to the stores of his/her knowledge. Nothing, certainly nothing, stops such a person from writing or declaiming, from entering, as it were, the traditional strongholds of literature and its scholars (and our ongoing experience with Indian Literature in English demonstrates as much): the doors of knowledge, of literature and literary theory, cannot be barred by the mere eventuality of admission and discipline and this would’ve been so even if it were not for inter-disciplinarity in higher education, a move which had, and still has, the potential to widen our horizons but which, sadly, seems to have been co-opted into the existing order of pedagogy. One has, after all, only to pick up – or download, as the case is increasingly getting to be – and read so that with perseverance and without tangible guidance one can actually master, or at least gain considerable insight into, any literary theory, school or work one chooses to delve into.

On the other hand, those who pursue literature cannot as easily skip into another discipline. Of course, this is characteristic to not just literature but to all that comes under the umbrella of humanities: those in the sciences, and perhaps commerce, can easily jump into the humanities but those in humanities face greater difficulties in engaging the sciences, leave alone other disciplines within their own rubric. Literary training especially has this particular isolating effect: from anthropology and sociology to psychology and politics, our tools and criticism draw much from the entire spectrum of humanities and as such only heighten that sense of sufficiency, of being capable in a special way, that characterises in varying degrees almost all in the profession.

Yet, there really is nothing special about it, about us. Opinion formation, theorisation, contextualisation and decentring, none of these are solely the province of a literary training. Scholars of history and political science can be as aware of social realities and acute in their criticism as the best of our cultural materialists. Competent graduates of science and economics too can engage the best of us in well-informed discussions on the merits of a classic, or the shortcomings of a school. Few there are amongst us, however, who’d be able to engage them on their ground, to converse intelligibly in their professed language, the subject their first choice. No more can literature produce uomini universali.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily cause for grief. A literary training was never in any case the sole guide to a rounded personality and though its professors and practitioners have gained somewhat of a presumption, it remains still only an addendum, not the sole goal in sight. This is neither to deny the advantages of such a training nor to negate its (social) potential: even if as a narrow trickle, the tangible fallouts of socially committed literary criticism can be seen and are certainly better than nothing at all.

Fact, however, remains that trickle or not, there really is nothing special, nothing remotely exalted or specific to any of it and that given the inclination, anybody from any other subject could easily master all that we hold dear and think specific. While it’s flattering to think of as being in a sense member to an inclusive and open profession or pursuit, it’s also disturbingly unnerving as a thought that takes away anything specific, anything special, anything that’d actually mark you and all your perseverance and effort, all your achievements, as distinct – and distinct not in terms of the actuality but the progression up to it, the difficulty or impossibility of that progression – from those of others in other fields.

Oh yes, sometimes, I really do hate my brother.


Exprashns... said...

absolutely love this.yeah, your brother is right.. infact thats what everybody whose done english literarture.

Ananya said...

Why Literature? Well, because after three years of Literature we learn to look beyond material issues like 'Profesions'. Having said that Literature equips you with beter writing skills and a lot of wit which empowers you in every possible way. You can be a better writer, journalist, Philosopher or a film-maker. I repeat, Better... Remember Anubhav,more or less every important entrance exam has a compulsory paper in English. Do you think it serves no purpose? Think again. Evn in the fields of social work or administration,or cultural studies, media governace etc. you can use your literary skills if you know how. Good for them who made it big in this field without pursuing the course formally but let us not let them disturb us. Pursue the course because of sole interest and indulge in it later as a profesion. It isn't as bad an idea that you make it out to be.

Nirbhay Bhogal said...

Well worded introspection. Though you don't need to hate your brother for being a scientist. I thought up the acronym gas (gastric anal steam) without being a scientist. And so can you -think up scientific sounding terms, I mean.

AP said...

Yes, for much as I hate to admit it, I have to agree that he is.

If I may, I think you're missing the point and aggrandizing the course's benefits. Who, for example, would be the 'we' you're referring to? All those who enrol in the course for a 'literary training'? Really? All of us enrolled for a literary training, and after we've recieved it we have all learned to look beyond professions?

Writer, journalist, philosopher, film-maker...how many of those who are these pursued literature? And how many of those who have would owe their being competent in their profession to their literary training alone? Finally, (and which is the point of this piece) are language, literary and analytical skills in any way necessarily dependant on the course we went through?

He isn't really a scientist, and I think I'm any day better at coining scientific sounding terms than him.

Nirbhay Bhogal said...

I agree with the points indicated by what you wrote to Ananya. Analytical skills, English vocabulary and literary output are not ensured by a B.A. (Hons) English Literature degree.

Ananya said...

Anubhav, I am not really concerned with what others do but I am sure of what purpose my course serves me. Since you don't buy my aguments, you still remain in a dilemma, whereas I am happy. All the Best.