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Does literature change anything?

NCH London | July 10, 2018

‘Does literature change anything?’

By Mashood Ahmad

NCH Essay Competition 2018 Second Place

“To be, or not to be; that is the question; Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer; The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles”.

The ‘greatest tragedy ever written’ speaks to the teleology of human suffering, and echoes the profound philosophical exploration of absolute human virtue. Hamlet criticises the nature of his existence and the divinely manifested morality which should guide him to steadfast righteousness, but instead has unfolded unspeakable spiritual entropy. In an epoch where scientific and technological advancement governs sociological outlooks on human modus vivendi; literature, drama and indeed art as an entity of human expression is placed under the proverbial microscope of relevancy with regards to progressing human civilization. Just as Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and Tolstoy had channelled language into complex equations of emotional catharsis, it will be proposed in this essay that not only does literature change the internal human condition, but the subtexts and morals which stories coagulate shape the destiny of the very society they are envisioned in.

If we define change as being the alteration of the physiological, moral or psychological landscape of an individual or of their greater society, then the operandi would constitute of the question of how it can be understood that literature catalyses change in human beings. Perceiving drama and literature as a scientific instrument of human philosophical contemplation, Aristotle’s writings are perhaps best suited to dissecting the empirical effect of literature on the human psyche. Being the genesis of the commonly accepted facets of the dramatic unities, hamartia, catharsis and the attributes of tragedy and comedy, Aristotle idealises that through the pragmatism of action through drama a reflection of reality leads the human mind to change itself according to the reflection of reality in the drama, because “For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality”. Although writing on the characteristics of tragedy, the quintessence of his remark is still in servitude to the idea of absorbing the action of reality in time and space and inverting it back to the audience as a story. For true significant metamorphosis of thought to occur, the myth must first resonate on humanely grounded dimensions before eliciting a physical response from the audience. Writing that “truth is not beyond human nature”, Aristotle encapsulates the universal belief that art is an odyssey into human truth and perhaps art cannot always change humanity, but truth can.

Perhaps the most accurate lens through which to perceive the relevancy of literature in orchestrating significant societal change is to embrace how literature has reshaped the anatomy of human political establishments. Orwell expanding on the thesis writes

“Whoever feels the value of literature, whoever sees the central part it plays in the development of human history, must also see the life and death necessity of resisting totalitarianism, whether it is imposed on us from within.”

To Orwell, to challenge and subvert the Machiavellian gravity which tyrants wield over the sanctified entity of human life is the grandeur of literature. Whether it is Orwell’s own ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ (1949) criticising the growth of 20th century fascism, or Milton’s Theo-mythical epic ‘Paradise Lost’ (1667) satirising the feudal absolutism of the Stuart monarchy, literature clashes with the established ideology to explore the most profound chasms of human virtue and to derive truth and benevolence from a morally shrouded and misunderstood civilization.

Likewise, the Romantic Movement in literature would be an apex example of how literature has altered the very idealistic destiny of Western civilization, redefining man’s relationship to the divine, to the natural world and to his fellow man. From the sublime poetic narratives of Blake in ‘London’ (1794) dissecting the dehumanising impacts of the emerging Industrial revolutions in Europe, his writings, much like his contemporaries, are a moral endeavour to free society from the “The mind-forg’d manacles” which shackle the human spirit in bondage and captivity. Moreover, it would be a fallacy to declare Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1823) anything other than pure avant-garde gothic Romantic genius. The most classic of literary works are often those which transcend genre and thematic categorisation, and ‘Frankenstein’ epitomises this facet to the greatest degree. Its religious allegories on the theodicies of evil and the mantles of divinity have caused explosions of debate and discussions regarding atheism and Biblical legitimacy and its critiques of blind scientific pursuit have served as the ideological foundation for virtually every artistic work of science fiction, spawning countless cinematic adaptations. Despite being written nearly two centuries ago, the fact that its sentiments on artificial intelligence, man playing the role of divine and the pursuit of power, still rebounds off of current issues regarding genetic engineering and bioethics is testament to its legacy as a work of literature which has sculpted the way in which man observes the world; crystallising Aristotle’s notion of drama and fiction reflecting the intricacies of the human condition in a far more omnipresent and realistic way than empirical truth can every accomplish, with Marshall Brown writing “Expression more than representation, ‘Frankenstein’ like its monster grips by virtue of its ungraspability”. The Romantic school of thought encapsulates the paramount notion that even though literature may not directly change society, it’s expressionism changes individual views and ideas, which argued by the Romantics, boast immortality over material monuments of power and glory.

Furthermore, if one is to submit the argument that political ideology changes society more so than artistic literary thought, then such an understanding would be a misreading of the origin of political thought itself. Despite Plato discussing the “quarrel between poetry and philosophy”, his works clearly draw parallels between the political themes of ancient Greek drama and the political philosophies which were envisioned out of those mythologies. It is a solid belief that Marxist socialism and its political manifestation in the form of communism has arguably changed the world in more ways than any other political dogma, but what is less well known is that Engels’ and Marx’s readings of classical literature such as Virgil and Plautus heavily inspired some of their key theoretical works like ‘Capital’ (1932) and ‘Anti-Dühring’ (1878). Heinrich von Staden writing on Marx’s utilisation of the Hellenistic culture states that “Marx’s assumption of the aesthetic normativeness of Greek antiquity is therefore, another link to in a traditionalistic Grecophile chain that stretches back at least a century.”  It would not be astonishing to see similarities in the discussions of feudalism and social egalitarianism in the works of Virgil, and in the manifestos of Marx and Engels. Thus, when arguing that politics changes the world, then clearly there is the thesis to be made that literature and mythology offer the moral stimulus for the inception of such political theories which then progress society’s visions of utopian civilization.

Contrastingly there are the literary styles of Aestheticism the Pre-Raphaelite vortex of thought which propose the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’. Having its genesis in the late 18th century, the emphasis on the appreciation of aesthetic and sensual beauty over complex literary metaphor and meaning was a foreground of focus for writers and artists like Christina Rossetti and William Morris. With its growth in popularity, especially amongst the spectrum of poets, in Victorian Britain, the movement was a radical breakaway from the compound established themes of Victorian moralism and Christian doctrine, and simply embraced the beauty of the artifice over its meaning. Perhaps the most prominent name to be associated with the movement was Oscar Wilde, who despite somewhat adhering to the notions of Aestheticism, has paradoxically influenced societal views of modernity more so than any other Victorian writer. Therefore, regardless of the notion that Aestheticism may argue an appreciation of art for beauty and not meaning, it cannot be denied that works like Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1890) have inexplicably predestined what would become immense modern narratives on homosexuality and morality.

To conclude, literatures as a written artifice changes society, but only when the reader superimposes the meaning of the art to then pragmatically implement its morals into society’s ethical architecture. Willingly or unwillingly, literature has been the author for human ideas since time immemorial; every aspect of culture has been quintessentially shaped by literature. Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ and Ovid’s ‘Metamorphosis’ are the foundations for every adventure tale post classical age, Dante’s image of Hell as constructed in ‘Inferno’ is the image which is conjured by every mind when imagining divine punishment, and the themes of usurpation and regicide which are so frequent in our modern cultural narratives was immortalised by Shakespeare’s ingenious tragedies which spoke to the universality of conflicting human virtue. However, it is not just philosophy and art which literature has changed. The powerful sociological and psychological impacts of literature from centuries ago are reminisced today; Polidori’s representation of the mystical Byronic antihero is an intricate comment on masculinity, ‘The Arabian Nights’ explored multifarious attitudes towards the morality of sexuality, and the Gothic social realism of Dickens was a powerful comment on the dehumanising repercussions of industrialisation and capitalism. Literature is a channelling of human sentiment and its effects are subjective and dependent on how, much like any other art form, it is received by the humanity of the reader. Literature doesn’t always change anything, but if potent and resonant enough to the human spirit, can change everything.

“A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.”

-Dylan Thomas


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