This is an essay I wrote in a competition at my college. ‘A study of literature refines our sensibilities’, the topic says. And this essay yearns to be a part of that literature.
It is extremely difficult to define literature. Each definition falls short of what it really is. It is simply not a structure, a construction of words, sentences and paragraphs. It is a medium of aesthetic communication, where people from hundreds of years ago sit in front of us, in our homes and speak, voice their thoughts, feelings, actions, dilemmas, choices and justifications. They build their world vividly around us. That is magical. That magical experience is literature.
Prose, poetry, stories, novels and plays have always captured us and transported us to different places, helped us think and understand more. Apart from the writer’s intention to narrate his story, books contain something else, something that appears peculiar when we attempt to explain, but something that can so easily be felt – that is what I believe Borges says is ‘sacred, mortal and mysterious’ in his conversation with Robert Alifano.
Doesn’t it offer tremendous hope when a Rudyard Kipling says ‘Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it, and which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!’ and provide to us an ideal compass? Or when a Maya Angelou makes a thrilling expression of her confidence and strength underlining it with scathing disgust and simmering sarcasm in ‘Still I Rise’, doesn’t it stupefy us? We rise in her rising.
We smile, laugh, cry, become aggressive, saddened, despondent, disgusted at things, at situations that are presented to us through literature. We experience then the rawest of human emotions. This experience in itself is nourishing. And we experience because we care, we are moved. This ability to care, we must cherish. Literature keeps on increasing our capacity to do so. From this care, from love, from our desire to connect, from worry and anguish, we imbibe the quality to understand, respond to and appreciate complex emotional, sensitive influences – sensibility. What literature does is not just baptising us to this sensibility but also refining it continuously.
We are indebted to literature for what we are today. Even the advancements in science and technology have been functions of our intellect, which as history has revealed, has been kindled by the study of literature. It is the stories of our past that we read, and their ways with life – their style, their thought, their dreams and desires, their errors – these shape us. Through our sensibilities, we make suitable modifications and live ours. Their expressions are life lessons.
Also, literature expands our imagination. Imagination is the key to social competence. A firm and controlled imagination where we can get lost and still find our way back. This kind of imagination is necessary – of course, we do not need to create fantasies, but to live our lives, we must have imagination. It is an enrichment – to picture in mind things we cannot see, but perceive and drive ourselves taking cue from that perception – both these actions demand imagination. Literature directs these imaginations. Colourful and sober. Smile and frown. Love and hate. Greed and content.
Literature introduces us to human behaviour. Our emotions are myriad and mysterious. Our choices are complicated. Our misconduct, many times is incomprehensible. Maybe that is why Borges says ‘to be born as a human is a paradox.’ But, literature diminishes the intensity of this incongruity. We read so much of humanness in literature that slowly and steadily, we can understand the misunderstanding – the ‘axis of innumerable relationships’ (literature) reveals it all. The characters in there serve as prisms to our larger society. Parallelly so, we can understand the ‘unbalanced’ behaviour of people around us, and most of the time, our own. We slowly get to know that this ‘unbalance’ is balance, and is truth. Our cultural and moral values are broadened with more readings of the social, psychological and humane deliberations in literature. This document of contemporary time and space sensitises us towards our family and friends, and ourselves. It is rejuvenation. Our morality grasps the truths of life – that these simple polar moral rules set by a self-appointed group in our society helps us in no way and in complexity is how we must evolve. Literature in all its complexity mirrors our lives. It suckles us astute consciousness that we must allow to seep through our throats.
There is one more thing that literature does – it makes us aware of ourselves. Like Fitzgerald says, ‘…that is the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.’ In any literary reading, don’t we all search for ourselves? We see ourselves in characters resembling us and ask ourselves what we would have done. I remember the numerous times at the dinner table when I have asked my family members to imagine themselves in similar positions and situations as that of the ones I find in stories, and with each response there is something that I have learnt. They feed our soul and spirit with morsels of human beauty. Isn’t that all sensibility?
Whenever I think of life, I am reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s words:
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
Such true lines! Life is a dream, and literature is a dream in it. Only literature can be so clear about this. Our spirits live in the domain of arts and literature – that is where we truly belong; and that is why we run behind it always. We all live different lives, and yet our ambition remains the same – to live happily. All of it – Tagore, Ghibran, Tolstoy, and Ruskin Bond; Yeats, Frost, Shelley and Narasimhaswamy is the fertile soil on which the plants of our spirit grow. It is the alluvium of life.