(NOTE: Tezpur University, where I work, has seventeen departments of which five belong to the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Complete lack of comprehension about the nature of the humanities is something I encounter on a daily basis. Some time ago I wrote a piece for our university journal, grandly called Srijan, trying to justify my particular discipline. I might as well have buried it in a hole. So I am now sending it in the opposite direction – cyberspace. Go, little post.)
Is literature useful? This question, which is as old as literature itself, has been answered by philosophers. We know what Plato said about poets (they corrupt and mislead), or how Aristotle justified tragedy (it is truer than history, and therapeutic). In this piece, I will attempt to answer the question about literature’s value from my own experience as a reader and teacher of literature and not philosophically (since I have no talent for that).
It is important to have an answer, especially if you teach literature, as I do, in a university dominated by science and technology. For, unlike the School of Engineering, which produces engineers, or the Department of Food Processing Technology, which has an enviably obvious purpose, the English Department does something that does not seem terribly important or serious: it teaches students how to read novels and poems.
Not that anyone is calling for the abolition of the English Department, certainly not in our university where the power of English as a global language is generally acknowledged. The English Department is expected to equip students with the language skills they need to do well in the job market. Fluency in a language, especially in the global lingua franca, is an asset even (or particularly) in our technological age. Thus the English Department may be asked to ‘correct’ the English in scientific research papers or help with the University prospectus, newsletter, and annual report. In other words, the English Department is viewed as a service department.
A bigger, more inspiring idea of what literature is or can be motivated the actions of Emile Zola when he risked his career as one of France’s leading novelists to defend Richard Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer who was falsely accused of treason. ‘J’accuse’, Zola’s famous open letter to the French President, which appeared in the newspaper L’Aurore on 13 January 1838, was a challenge to the establishment to undo a grave wrong. A good deal of opposition and bitterness followed but Dreyfus was eventually exonerated. ‘J’accuse’ is the paradigm of a writer following his individual conscience and refusing to submit to national (and nationalistic) sentiments. It is also a powerful example of what the public intellectual can accomplish. Closer home, we have the examples of Dr Hiren Gohain, who has been involved in facilitating talks between ULFA and the Government of India, and Arundhati Roy, who, Zola-like, has championed various causes through her essays and open letters in Outlook magazine. But when a writer becomes an activist, there is the danger that he or she may give up literature. Arundhati Roy has not written a novel after The God of Small Things.
The Progressive Writers Association (PWA), founded at a time when the great struggle against imperialism was on, did not believe in separating literature from politics. Instead, they saw the role of the writer as central in bringing about change and radicalizing consciousness. At its first formal meeting in London in 1934, the PWA’s manifesto (written in English because there were Bengali, Punjabi and Hindi writers present), declared
Radical changes are taking place in India society…We believe that the new literature of India must deal with the basic problems of our existence today – the problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness, and political subjection. All that drags us down to passivity, inaction and un-reason we reject as reactionary. All that arouses in us the critical spirit, which examines institutions and customs in the light of reason, which helps us to act, to organize ourselves, to transform, we accept as progressive.
Writers like Mulk Raj Anand (who was largely responsible for the London manifesto) were exposed to western ideas and influenced by international movements (including the resistance to fascism). But the homegrown Premchand too called for a fundamental change in art and society when he delivered the presidential address at the PWA’s 1936 Conference at Lucknow:
We will have to change our standard of beauty. So far this standard has been based on wealth and love of pleasure…Mud huts and ruins were not worthy of his [the writer’s] attention… That they [villagers, the poor] too are human beings and have hearts and aspirations, this was beyond the imagination of art.
Premchand’s Godan (about a poverty-stricken farmer) as well as Anand’s Untouchable (about a latrine cleaner) deal with themes unprecedented in Indian or English literature. That ideology is not injurious to art is evident when we consider the body of work produced by writers who were either PWA members or shared its vision: Saadat Hasan Manto, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ishmat Chughtai, Ahmed Ali, Bhisham Sahni, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Kaifi Azmi, and, in Assam, Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla and Bishnu Rabha (they were active members of the Assam branch of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, a sister organization of the PWA).
Like their Indian counterparts, progressive Chinese writers too dreamt of bringing about a change in their society. In 1906 Lu Xun (later described by Mao as ‘the saint of modern China’) gave up his studies at a Japanese medical school to become a writer. His epiphanic moment had occurred when a teacher showed the class a slide of a Chinese man being beheaded by the Japanese for acting as a spy during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Lu Xun was disgusted by the reaction of his compatriots:
Every face was utterly, stupidly blank . . . I no longer believed in the overwhelming importance of medical science… However rude a nation was in physical health, if its people were intellectually feeble, they would never become anything other than cannon fodder or gawping spectators…The first task was to change their spirit; and I decided that literature and the arts were the best means to this end.
Lu Xun’s famous novella ‘The Real story of Ah-Q’ (Ah Q zheng zhuan) is about the escapades of a Chinese everyman. Ah-Q’s chief failings have been described as his servility to the rich and powerful, together with cruelty towards the weak, and his turning of ignominious moments into imaginary moral victories. The story is related in mock-biographical style by an educated Chinese narrator. The hapless Ah-Q becomes a scapegoat and is finally executed. But Lu Xun’s sophisticated satiric treatment spares neither the biographer (who has no real empathy with his subject) nor the crowd which comes to enjoy the execution of Ah-Q.
Is literature useful? Lu Xun, China’s ‘self-appointed literary physician’, would have answered in the affirmative, as would have the PWA writers and Zola. But I have found my answer in the reflections of Yiyun Li, a contemporary writer, on the suicide by a young woman in China. As the woman prepared to jump from the roof of a seventeenth-storey building a crowd gathered below: people took out their cell phones, the elderly brought chairs, and a pedlar began hawking binoculars. Yiyun Li wonders how this crowd is different from the crowd that witnessed the beheading of Ah-Q:
Perhaps literature, unlike what Lu Xun… hoped, will not change the world in any grand way; rather, it is what remains unchanged that will make literature live on, and it is perhaps for this reason that Lu Xun’s stories will be still read fifty or a hundred years from now.
Yiyun Li comments help us understand why literature matters, even when – perhaps especially when – it does not change the world. For the unhappy woman on the seventeenth floor, life had no meaning. But between us and the void there is literature.