By Alina Ostrovsky
Every passing moment, passing hour, passing day and year is a building-block that constructs a plot in which we, as individuals, in the progression of it, encounter a conflict, survive its climax, and, as a result, undergo an opened or closed-ended resolution, nuanced to our individual circumstances. So, essentially, we are living within the constraints of our life-story. While keeping all that in mind, very intriguingly, a collection of all of our individual stories establishes our history, uniquely pertaining to the region we live in. However, due to the lack of individuality in it, the narrator of our history, made up of all our stories, speaks of the events much more objectively and indifferently than we would like. Yet, there is a speck of redemption in the matter.
Literature forms the evocative ideal
While ordinary history of any given nation is considered to be that nation’s biography, its literature is its autobiography, written with emotion, purpose and zeal particular to the composer of that literature. Through the composition of literature, authors have the versatility to stop time and look at our unfolding history a lot more subjectively than what any historians can do. This is true because, in their submergence into the activity of composing their literary work, they help transport us (meaning themselves as authors and ourselves as readers) outside of history, where we become citizens of a timeless land that is immortal. In that land, time is ticking away in accordance to the authors pace of composition and our pace of flipping the pages in reading ‘that composition’, which makes “time wait for us” as opposed to the saying of “time waits for no man”.
The roots of literature
The term “literature” is a comparatively new term that has originated around the 18th century. This term would have struck extremely strange to Chaucer, the forefather of English literature, who lived in the era of the spoken Middle-English dialect. Even around the 17th century, a literary figure such as Alexander Pope would have found that term exquisite. Also, writing in prose is considered to be more of a modern invention given the understanding that, at the beginning stage of human written history, ‘literature’ was formed into existence in exclusively poetic verse. Even Aristotle complained: “Art that uses only speech by itself or verse…has, as of yet, no name”.
In fact, the word Litteratura for the Romans denoted either the ability to form letters or, more usually, the quality of being widely read. In other words, it was a sort of a ‘think-tank’ of knowledge through which learned individuals were able to sift and apply accordingly to their understanding, thus, helping them entertain their imaginations. Hence comes the word “literacy”, ability to read, or “literate”, being well-read, well-versed—‘not being born yesterday’, not being a victim of ignorance, the ability of not being vulnerable to other people’s deception due to a lack of knowledge, or being up to speed with the world or ones surrounding in some sense.
For the longest time, however, the first word-composers, who were regarded as poets at the time, did not receive their due merits. People of different professions finally recognised the value of poets well after the 17th century. Trevor Ross articulately states in that regard:
“The highest praise that could be awarded a poet held [in the way] that he had refined his community’s or his age’s language, in the sense that he had tapped new sources and varieties of eloquence. In doing so, he had proven the language’s beauty, versatility and rhetorical power.”
The inherent spirit of zeitgeist
What’s interesting about works of literature is that they are a reflection of one’s period of existence, which is, what’s known to be, the author’s zeitgeist. Zeitgeist means the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history that is shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time, which is also termed the Time-Spirit. Because Time is the ultimate controller of human history, it has a spiritual quality to it—it could be a healing entity for a nation and even a person, or the opposite, an entity of strife and turmoil. Throughout history, Time has fluctuated from one state of being to another state of being. So, altogether, every man, according to Goethe’s statement, is the citizen of his age—one belongs to one’s century even when one reacts against one’s century. There is no escaping.
Generally speaking, literature is the food of the rebellious spirit, the promulgator of non-conformities, the refuge for those who have too much or too little in life. A particular literary work can have the capacity to reflect approval of the age as the author takes advantage of its prosperity in the manner in which he composes the content of his literature. However, it can also be a heated state of disapproval, reflecting the ominous obstructions of life that hinder a person from attaining the optimal state of his well-being.
More specifically, the author has the freedom to set their story in any time of history—past his zeitgeist, present, or even future—but he cannot run away from the influence that his particular zeitgeist would make on his literary work. There will be imprints of it even with a heavy amount of research about the time period that the author chooses to set his story on. Still, maybe his choice of time-setting was intentional to project a certain message unto the reader to bring a comparative sense of how life used to be then and how it is now—maybe it has improved since then or worsened. If it is a futuristic setting, then maybe the author is trying to project the trajectory that our present age is leading us towards—whether it is for the better or for the worse.
A space for authors’ own reflections
Nonetheless, authors composing their piece always weave their work to reflect their ideals one way or another. They are trying to explain their understanding of what a life-better-lived is—a life of meaning and contribution. It is projected, more often than not, through their criticisms of their age of existence. Mario Vargas Llosa describes the kind of premonition that authors tend to have regarding the corrupted principles of the world present during their particular zeitgeist. He explains that that ‘premonition’ can be captured, without failure, in between the lines of a certain literary work as he states as follows:
“Even more than the need to sustain the continuity of culture and to enrich language, the greatest contribution of literature to human progress is to remind us (without intending to, in the majority of cases) that the world is badly-made. Those who pretend to the contrary, the powerful and the lucky, are lying. [Therefore, the author is trying to demonstrate through the content of the piece of literature that’s been read] that the world [has room to be] improved. [As the author points out the wrongs of the world, he shows what needs to be corrected by the collective endeavour of the society, which makes it all the more convincing that the world can be] made more like the worlds that our imagination and our language are able to create. [This can be accomplished by making the leap of faith of turning what’s imagined about that ‘ideal world’ into a reality].”
A profound experience for the reader
The most meaningful part of reading literature is that it makes us more humane—compassionate, considerate, patient in dealing with our human flaws, realistic, practical and understanding towards others and ourselves. However, just casually surfing the web and speed-reading does none of that. The effect is, quite astoundingly, the opposite. It turns us into having instincts of those of the robot. Only, since we are human, we develop the side effects of impatience, unfeelingness, apathy, while existing in a sphere of demands, as we read only through the content that appears desirable to the appetite of our ego, making us gluttonous beings. Reading literature requires more interaction with the text, which is a process that is a lot more graceful and enlightening. It maintains a sort of a reading diet that is healthy for our mind’s well-being, which turns us into humans. That kind of ‘reading’ can be achieved through reading from a physical paper that we can hold and interact with. As Eugene H. Paterson explains in Eat this Book, “Reading is an immense gift, but only if the words are assimilated, taken into the soul—eaten, chewed, gnawed, received in unhurried delight.” Paterson describes this ancient art of lectio divino, or spiritual reading as “reading that enters our soul as food enters our stomachs, spreads through our bloodstreams, and becomes…love and wisdom”—not information overload that turns into a hodgepodge, which grows roots of imbecility in the way of its ignorance.
Therefore, Mario postulates:
“Let us imagine a world without literature, a humanity that has not read poems or novels. In this kind of atrophied civilization, with its puny lexicon in which groans and ape-like gesticulations would prevail over words, certain adjectives would not exist, [which, without them, we will be at the mercy of barbarism”.
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