Beyond Meaning and Intention

Gulshan Banas (II Year)

To begin with, a word of warning to the reader: it took me an hour to write this piece, and only two minutes to type out the title. The following work could be interpreted as free flowing ideas, coming from a mind too fascinated and confused by the human mind to produce a coherent argument. While the title sounds fancy, my attempt is only an analysis of something I think my life is personally intertwined with – literature. As a psychology student, I am wonderstruck by the extent of human creativity in art. This article is a product of my musings on where the creativity comes from; to what extent is it an individual product and its relationship to the society and culture at large.

The word literature is derived from the Latin word meaning “letter” – in the broadest sense of the term, literature merely refers to the art of written words and letters. It is quite obvious that literature is not merely that, it much more than just writing. One of the longest running discussions in my literature classes (since middle school, perhaps) has been on good versus bad literature. Indeed literature is an art, and art is usually subjected to a value judgment by society. Another question is whether literature holds up a “mirror” to the culture in which it is produced. I, too, have engaged in these two questions, being a novice bibliophile for many years. For me, on one level literature is good when it broadens perspective and opens the mind – I have borrowed this opinion from an American comic strip called “Orson’s Farm”, about a socially awkward farm pig – Orson – who loves reading book. Orson’s Farm is also one of the first books I owned, and this particular expression comes from a comic strip depicting Orson sitting on an opened book, as if driving a car, so that “books can take him to places he’s never been before”.

I can confidently say that all my favourite books have taken me to places I’ve never been before and across times as well – from papal controversies in medieval Europe to parallel dimensions in the future. To say that literature and society interact intimately is a limited viewpoint; literature is a product of the culture and society and thus is not only interactive but intertwined with it. Society produces literature and literature, too, produces society and culture in many ways. Literature does not only hold a mirror to society; it also provides a map to show society where it came from and where it is possibly going. And, perhaps sometimes literature may have no meaning or function except being a product of human creativity. I will further illustrate all these aspects of literature, starting from literature that is not a consciously meaningful product.

When I was still in middle school I came across a textbook of literature called “Appreciating Literature”, a book I appreciated very much indeed. I came across E. V. Rieu’s work in this book, more specifically a poem titled “Night Thought of a Tortoise Suffering from Insomnia on a Lawn”. The poem read,

The world is very flat –
There is no doubt of that.

This is a piece of literature that has baffled me till date. Poetry is a form of literature which is quite confusing under ordinary circumstances, but when the title of the poem is the same length as the poem itself, it is downright frustrating. At first I wondered about the “meaning” of the poem – the poem is too simple to understand, it has no pretentious or flowery language, it has no big words or fancy rhyming, so naturally I assumed it must have a deeper meaning. It’s been seven years since I first read it, and I still haven’t uncovered that “deeper meaning” of it.

More recently, I’ve begun to ask myself – must literature hold deeper meaning? For literature to valuable to society and to the reader, is it necessary for it to be profound, meaningful and consciously reflecting society like a mirror? Life often doesn’t make sense so why should literature? Life is sometimes just playful and whimsical – and Lewis Carroll with his “Jabberwocky” has surely taught us to laugh at ourselves even when we don’t understand life and perhaps even celebrate that lack of understanding. Just as Alice is reluctant to confess that she cannot understand the poem “Jabberwocky”, most of us cannot seem to accept that sometimes life is inexplicable and perhaps even meaningless. The need to impose meaning on life is reflected in the need to consciously impose meaning on literature.

Story-telling, whether as oral traditions or literature, is a universal social behaviour, cutting across societies, cultures and even classes within a culture – and perhaps it is a basic human psychosocial need. Literature can be didactic or simply narrative. The author could consciously intend to impart some message, vision or moral through his or her writing, or the author could narrate stories without making the message very clear or obvious. In the former, the author very clearly has an opinion or perspective and is obvious in its presentation in literature. Traditionally, fables have existed across many societies, intending to impart morals to the readers through stories. Here, literature serves as a “tool” of the culture to mould its individuals. In the latter, the author narrates a story and the reader is left unclear on the author’s view or opinion on the content – the reader’s role is to engage with the story and interact with it to interpret it. Irrespective of whether literature is consciously meaningful and functional or not, it is always embedded in context – which has social, historical, political, economic, religious and even unique, individualistic and personal dimensions.

A few years ago I started reading Ayn Rand’s novels (initially out of peer pressure for reading the more “intellectual” breed of literature, I must confess), beginning with The Fountainhead. If there is any author who makes his or her personal philosophy blatantly obvious in their writing, it is Ayn Rand. The common feature across all her novels is that the reader, after an initial sense of intrigue, is left feeling grossly inadequate as an individual  (I deliberately focus on the reader as being the common element). Rand’s characters are uncommonly individualistic, have achieved the epitome of personal autonomy and independence that I’m not sure any living person has ever felt. But her characterization aside, I don’t agree with Rand’s perspective on individual ownership of ideas and creativity. Literature is produced by individuals, and mainstream psychology informs us that individuals vary in psychological traits, thus there are differences in “levels” of creativity across individuals. Both these perspectives, one being a personal philosophy and the other being the foundation of an academic discipline, are similar and their similarity has nothing to do with the individualism they espouse. Ayn Rand’s individualism and mainstream psychology’s obsessive focus on the “self” both seem to stem from the Western individualistic, capitalist understanding of human beings which is oriented towards the “I” and towards ownership.

Furthermore, in Rand’s opinion, it is the basic right of individuals who create to own their creation. This is a perspective I dispute. Not only is literature embedded in context, it belongs to the context. As a reader, what I take from a story, a novel, a poem may be very different or even the opposite of what the author intended to give to me. Literature may be produced by the author, but it doesn’t belong to the author as much as copyright and intellectual property laws would like us to believe. Literature is an interactive process which, as mentioned before, extends beyond what is written. Literature is built on a foundation of ideas taken from the author’s analysis of society or context, it goes back to this context when it is read and it creates changes in this context as the reader subjectively interprets it and acts upon it.

The concept of “stories in stories” or “books in books” provides food for thought over ownership of the story or the book. One Thousand and One Nights, weaving through a complex network of stories, is one of the best examples of this concept and confused me immensely when I read it as a child. Who do the stories ultimately belong to? Do they belong to the various characters in the anthology who are telling their stories to the reader or do they belong to the princess who narrating all the stories? Or do the stories belong to the various authors, scholars and translators who worked on the anthology? The most interesting aspect here is that the authors, scholars and translators of One Thousand and One Nights are now forgotten to history – the literature itself has emerged as more important than the individuals whose creative product it is. Similarly, the poet Jane Taylor, who wrote the lyrics for “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, it forgotten to history whereas her work is one of most recognized nursery rhymes in the world. When literature interacts with society – this dialogue is more important than the author and individual production. The author may eventually be forgotten, but literature may live on by itself and continue to be part of the historical context of a culture.

Literature is different from any other social or “commercial” product of the society. Literature is liberating when it is good, it does not only emerge from creativity it further stimulates creativity in its readers. With the advent of the internet in the 21st century, a phenomenal development in the interaction between literature and the context of its readers is “fan-fiction”, or literature created further by fans. As the American author Lev Grossman puts it, “Fanfiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couch-bound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.”

There are instances in which literature has depicted aspects of the social context that the readers or the social context in which it is produced may not be willing to come to terms with – on this level, literature is a vehicle for social change and it truly broadens the perspective of the reader. An example of this is how society perceives and has perceived sexuality in a moral and historical framework. In the past three centuries, European literature has often dealt with sex and sexuality with novels written on the same being perceived as scandalous by the very social context they intend to reflect. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary from France, David H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover from England and the lesser-known Mikhail Artsybashev’s Sanin from Russia are three novels written between mid 19th century and early 20th century that I have recently read. These novels deal with sexual relationships, sex before marriage and unhappiness in marriage created by sexual dynamics and adultery. Legal action was taken against all three novels when they were first published, and that fact that the three are available to me in India little more than a century later and I could read them with a relatively more liberal attitude than contemporary readers shows that social change has taken place in how sexuality is construed in a moral, social and legal framework. Literature has served as a vehicle for this change in attitude and social ideas, in the way the idea of philosophical progress is popularly attributed to G. W. Hegel (as the Hegelian dialectic) in which there is progress from an original intellectual proposition or the thesis, the a rejection of the original idea or the anti-thesis and the final conflict and reconciliation of ideas, forming a new idea or the synthesis. While literature may sometimes reinforce normative ideas and attitudes existing in society, it may also break them to give way to newer attitudes. Therefore it is not just a passive reflection of society, like a mirror, it is an active element of social, philosophical and historical change.

Literature brings forth a number of perspectives on human behaviour, motives, culture and life. It doesn’t just reflect the social context in the present; it also tries to uncover how this context has developed and how it will possibly develop. Literature is a tool for creative expression, and perhaps its ultimate purpose is to understand and create the meaning of life by examining the past, present and possible future of humanity. To engage with the question of whether literature has purpose or not, is to engage with the question of whether human life and sentience has any purpose. In Douglas Adams’ words, the ultimate motive of intelligent life forms is to find the “Answer to the Ultimate Question to Life, the Universe and Everything” and, as in his The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, our investigations may only lead us to answers as absurd as “the Ultimate Answer to Life is 42.”

References

Adams, D. (1997). The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. New York: Del Rey.

Artsybashev, M. (2001). Sanin: A Novel. Cornell University Press.

Carroll L. (2012). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Signet Classics.

Currie, Gregory. Retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/01/does-great-literature-make-us-better/?_r=0

Eagleton, T. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.dartmouth.edu/~engl5vr/Eagle1.html

Flaubert, G. (2011). Madame Bovary. London: Harper Press.

Gaarder, J. (2007). Sophie’s World: A novel about the history of philosophy. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux.

Grossman, L. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,2081784,00.html

Rand, A. (1993). The fountainhead. (Centennial ed.). New York: New American Library.

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