What is Literature?
This essay focuses on the nature of literature, and primarily its relationship with human identity and contemporary society. The focal element of the inquiry will be the consideration of literature functioning as a cynosural social conscience, and the extent to which it defines, affects and reflects collaborative social identity whilst remaining a non-cognisant ‘entity’ in its own right. For the purposes of this investigation, the multi-faceted term ‘literature’ will be comprised of three main aspects – the author, the reader and society. In order to conduct said inquiry, several key elements of literature will be considered, primarily: the role of contemporary society as the material which provides the author with his muse, the author as a channel for the societal zeitgeist, and the role of the reader as an interpreter of the medium. In addition, the pertinence of literature with regard to the human search for a unique identity will also be examined.
Camilo Jose Cela, the Spanish Nobel Laureate, said that “literature is the denunciation of the times in which one lives” (Cela; 1942). In this respect, Cela is perhaps stressing the role of literature as an entity with a defined agenda, and as such is implying a purpose to works of literature. If an essential role of literature can indeed be considered a criticism of the society within which it was created, then the influence of an author is not only inevitable, but essential. It would imply an ulterior agenda on behalf of the author to move distinctly away from the morally didactic ‘art for arts sake’ principles of Aestheticism – instead directing criticism at the society in which the author is resident. This objective view of literature was soon to become somewhat outdated with the development of twentieth-century New Criticism (as will later be examined). The question is then raised as to whether literature is indeed an expression of the author or an outpouring of social, political and cultural revelation – an unconscious attempt by the author to recruit the reader into the societal zeitgeist. In this light, literature would perhaps be considered not so much a direct denunciation of society, but an addition to it: “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become” (C.S. Lewis; ). This suggests an alternative to the persuasive agenda of certain pieces of literature that could perhaps be seen as an attempt to recruit the reader to an opinion held by the author. Is society itself therefore capable of informing the reader? Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote that “literature that is not the breath of contemporary society, that dares not warn in time against threatening moral and social dangers… does not deserve the name of literature… it is only a façade” (Solzhenitsyn; 1969). This statement vigorously depicts what Solzhenitsyn considers to be the primary role of literature; to be the “breath of contemporary society” is evidently the demand being made of literature in this instance. Although Solzhenitsyn was writing in reference to the Soviet state, the application of his comment in wider context is undeniable. The notion that literature should be a reflection of contemporary society is an obvious and ever-present one. If it fails to fulfil this requirement expected of it, then it is merely (according to Solzhenitsyn) a ‘façade’ of deception which serves only to conceal the nature of the society which it purports to unmask. If this is indeed the intention of literature, then the role of the author also becomes clear. If literature is a mirror being held up to society, then the author – the ‘creator’ of said literature - is surely the person holding the mirror. This metaphor is, however, forcibly rejected by many, who describe it as “ancient… shattered and discarded [by] postmodern literature and critical theory” (Graff; 1979). If this is indeed the case, then whatisthe role of the author in the function and creation of literature? Is it to act as a channel – translating and packaging the very identity of contemporary society into verbiage capable of reaching out and speaking to the reader? From this perspective, the content and purpose of a piece of literature becomes something proposed not necessarily by the creator of the work, but by the society presented within it. When Ginsberg wroteHowl, he was encouraged to write with no restrictions and to do so with spontaneity and without consideration (Ginsberg;Journals Mid-Fifties: 1954-1958. Ed. Gordon Ball. HarperCollins, 1995). The poem that subsequently emerged was a savage and uninhibited protest against contemporary America, Ginsberg’s own animalistic ‘howl’ of raw emotion. Following the first public reading of the poem, Michael McClure wrote: "Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America..." (www.poets.org; From the Academy of American Poets:Allen Ginsberg). The freedom with which Ginsberg createdHowlis particularly evident in the metre of the poem – each line is measured by a single breath. In doing so, Ginsberg seems to weakening the boundary between that which is deliberately delivered by the author in accordance with the accepted medium and that which is a direct and pure outpouring of the social conscience delivered by the uninhibited author of literature. The famous opening lines aptly demonstrate Ginsberg’s ability to convey desperation and the primal outpourings of emotion the poem is renowned for: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” (Ginsberg; Howl). Howlwas a brutal and unrepentant declaration of a generation unsatisfied by the society it found itself existing in. The frequent unashamed references to sex and drugs resulted in the much-publicised obscenity charges brought against the poem’s publisher, perhaps confirming the very nature of the society howled at by Ginsberg – that which attempts to repress a conventionally immoral and obscene publication. Oscar Wilde wrote that “the books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame” (Wilde;The Picture of Dorian Gray), and in this respect the statement is most certainly pertinent. However, despite the unwaveringly constant tirade of profanity, the publisher ofHowlwon the case brought against them in the obscenity trial of 1957 due to the judge deeming the poem to be of “redeeming social importance”. Howlis being presented to a society that is forced to recognise itself in Ginsberg’s poetry, the subsequent introspection of the reader resulting in the birth of the beat generation and recognition of the force of such unbridled creative spontaneity. In this respect,Howlas a literary exploit is expressive of the identity of contemporary society, and as such affirms the role of society as the primary element behind the creation and perseverance of literature. It is also only through literature that society is given a coherent identity, as in no other way is the reader presented with an assessment of such clarity and startling insight. In order for this critical reception to take place, however, an author is required to bridge the gap between society and reader.
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- Harry Taylor (Author), 2010, What is Literature?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/207922