A Quoi Sert la Litterature?
“A Quoi Sert la Litterature?” /”What is the purpose of Literature?” or (this being French) “Of what use can Literature be?”
These were the questions that were the subtext of the Question that was asked yesterday evening: “La Litterature sert-elle a changer le monde?”
Such was the question asked to 3 authors, two of whom were Mauritian writers Carl de Souza and Shenaz Patel at the Institut Francais de Maurice. The other writer was the French writer, Olivier Rolin. This round table session was the first of three aimed at elaborating a clearer picture of the role and function of literature in the 21st century. Certainly, as both Shenaz and Carl have pointed out, the very notion of “art” or “literature” having to “serve” a purpose or fulfill some aim (whether didactic, social, political or otherwise) is disturbing. Certainly, literature may be read and interpreted (and therefore “used” by the reader – re: Barthes!).
Shenaz Patel made a pertinent statement about the purpose of her writing: it could be beautiful or it could just as well be ugly, if she so chose. She warns against this trend (which in itself is not new) of judging and valuing art in terms of its “usefulness” to society. If Art (and by extension, literature) were solely meant to be useful, it would seriously hinder any attempt at creativity.
Interestingly, the Mauritian context was also discussed, especially attitudes pertaining to the Mauritian authors’ depiction of reality. Certain truths – as perceived by these writers – are hence not palatable, and therefore need to be suppressed, if not even repressed. It would seem that there are quite a lot of Mauritians who would like to see the myth of Mauritius as a paradise island upheld and it is very disturbing for them, therefore, when some of these writers portray a reality which is very different from the nation arc-en-ciel: that rainbow nation, harmonious, cooperative, unified, undisturbed and tolerant.
I appreciated the fact that the floor was then given to the audience, for in my opinion, it does not suffice to ask a writer what she intended to do with her writing, whether she had aimed to change the world, or more precisely her notion of the world, whether she wanted to disturb, move, persuade, argue, tell, narrate, remember, or invent (and so on). The reader also is a key stakeholder in the creation of meaning – the earth does not move simply by writing a text – it has to be read, first, to have an effect.
Can literature change the world? All is qualitative and subjective here. And it always starts with one reader at a time, although many readers may experience their reading in similar ways. Carl de Souza states that the act of writing is not really an act of liberation, he feels no particular sense of release after having written a book. His world does not change – although he does imply that he would like some form of reaction to what he writes.
I do not think a single blog post does justice to this question. The answer (if there is any) would be too vast. Already, as pointed out above, to ask the question already presupposes a bias on the part of the one asking: for there will be many who will argue that literature does not have to be useful or need to serve any particular purpose or function. Why ask about the purpose of literature when you can appreciate its beauty? Why (and this was asked by a student) dissect a text – stylistically, thematically, narratologically – at school, when we could teach students to appreciate the relevance of the themes to their lives and look into the beauty of the language?
Yet it is true that literature in its finished state has been appropriated and interpreted/used in many ways. It has become the standard-bearer of a culture. It has come to signify the best usage of language and the best way of expressing thought. It has been seen as having “universal” value (something which Shenaz warns people to beware) and perennial in nature (ie relevant and evergreen even after centuries!). It has been seen as carrying specific truths about life, about society and so on.
On the negative side, texts have been imbued with satanic and/or deviant intents (Rushdie, Nasreen, Collen). Books have been burnt and authors made the target of fatwas. This reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s novella Fahrenheit 451, where books are seen as the ultimate cause of deviance and therefore need to be destroyed at all costs. It is the same in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where books written by Shakespeare, for instance, are kept locked… and the Savage, who rebels, is the rare person who has read Shakespeare and can therefore think differently from the conforming masses. Did writers write with such consequences in mind? Had they anticipated such reception from their readers?
Of what use is literature? Is there any such thing as a literature nowadays? Or is it just about what makes money? Can a writer nowadays free herself from the materialistic aspects surrounding the writing, editing, and publishing of her text? To what extent do market forces and trends in reader interests (re: Harry Potter, Twillight, Vampire Diaries) affect one’s choice of content? Does one really write from the heart (/soul) or does one deliberately seek to provoke? Would it even matter if they did?
Anyway, I keep this door wide open. I will probably add more to this post as time goes by. In the meantime, feel free to answer my lovely poll (my very first! be kind :p) on this very crucial question 🙂