Monday, September 18, 2006

Why Literature?

This is an excellent essay by the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa that I came across recently. It was selected for an anthology of best American essays (American because it was first published in The New Republic in 2001).

Good literature, while temporarily relieving human dissatisfaction, actually increases it, by developing a critical and non-conformist attitude toward life. It might even be said that literature makes human beings more likely to be unhappy. To live dissatisfied, and at war with existence, is to seek things that may not be there, to condemn oneself to fight futile battles, like the battles that Colonel Aureliano Buendía fought in One Hundred Years of Solitude, knowing full well that he would lose them all. All this may be true. Yet it is also true that without rebellion against the mediocrity and the squalor of life, we would still live in a primitive state, and history would have stopped. The autonomous individual would not have been created, science and technology would not have progressed, human rights would not have been recognized, freedom would not have existed. All these things are born of unhappiness, of acts of defiance against a life perceived as insufficient or intolerable. For this spirit that scorns life as it is--and searches with the madness of Don Quixote, whose insanity derived from the reading of chivalric novels--literature has served as a great spur.



anurag said...

I think I do not support/like Llosa's argument of discontent and dissatisfaction. Its quite naive to say that the purpose of art is to increase this dissatisfaction. I think, although art (or literature) must develop a critical, non-conformist attitude, but it need not necessarily bring in a general discontent ( this stinks of literature raging a battle, I usually picture art as an observer, very attentive and precise one). Although I didnt read the full text, but to say this discontent, created science and technology may be right... but to say that it progressed human rights is far fetched, ... any such thing will require more understanding of issues than discontent. Art give us that understanding. That may or may not cause discontent, thats beyond its reach. Any art purposely trying so is nothing but propaganda.

Alok said...

I think Llosa is saying the same thing. The discontent and dissatisfaction of mind that he talks of is generated as a result of that "understanding of issues", as you say it. Literature works in an indirect manner, that's what gives the power which propagandas lack.

Even more than the need to sustain the continuity of culture and to enrich language, the greatest contribution of literature to human progress is perhaps to remind us (without intending to, in the majority of cases) that the world is badly made; and that those who pretend to the contrary, the powerful and the lucky, are lying; and that the world can be improved, and made more like the worlds that our imagination and our language are able to create.

For me personally literature is all about reminding us how language can be used or abused to reveal or hide the reality, a deeper reality beneath the apparent surface of things, without the knowledge of which it is not possible to live an authentic life. Geroge Orwell in his essay on Politics and English Language makes similar claims, although his arguments for clarity and unambiguity are mostly applicable for journalistic writings.

Alok said...

It is also interesting that in the essay he mentions Uncle Tom's Cabin, which on a purely aesthetic level, is more or less a mediocre work but which played a great role in awakening people's consciouness about slavery and racism. And in the same way some of the great human progresses have occurred because of propaganda. Devotees would say that Communist Manifesto or The Rights of Man are works of literature (as in the prose is great) but they are surely not works of imaginative literature.

Zero said...

I think the mentioned increase in discontent (as a result of reading good literature is) "transitory". I agree that "angst" is aggravated, but I think an individual's decision to live at peace with the absurdities is his own. It's a reaction to literature, yes, but it's still the individual's reaction.

It wouldn't be long before one "realises" that it's only a boook!

P.S.:- Of course, the degree of transitoriness depends on the individual.

Zero said...

Of course, I know that I have taken a Hitchcock-esque stance, but I can't afford to be as less angsty-artsy as Hitch. Or, probably I am.

Alok said...

Of course it finally depends on the individual as to what he chooses to do once the reality of the matter has dawned on him. But the purpose of any work of art ends there, showing a deeper reality that you otherwise wouldn't have noticed. After that it is entirely upto the individual.

And frankly most of us indeed feel powerless or else lack the will to do anything about the discontent. Instead we choose shallow amusement and escape.

Zero said...

And, I have to admit that I read only the very beginning of the essay actually.

I gathered whatever I did from the comments. I should go read it first (but frankly I don't feel like as the question seems too obvious or totally unanswerable to me).

Alok said...

It is not any radically new idea or any thing like that but it is written very well.