Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Literature as a Transformative Force

"Lev Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana", 19...Image via Wikipedia
While critics, philosophers, writers, and theorists debate what 'literature' is, I will simply assume that it exists and that is has many functions.

For this article I am concerning myself with literature not as a science, nor an art, much less a discipline, but as a trans-formative force in human affairs—the power to change people.

To narrow the discussion, I hold that literature must own the power to bring about change. That doesn't mean that it must force people into specific ideologies or set behaviors. Not at all. Neither force nor coercion must enter the equation. When you think about it, change in our lives comes about because we become aware that something needs to be changed.

Once we present to our consciousness an 'it' that needs change—we change! And that is the force of literature: it presents themes, topics, events, and situations to a reader's consciousness.

Literary authors and popular authors, select the material they choose to present not because that material will entertain the reader for a while, but because such material is a crucial lesson to the characters' lives and indirectly to the reader. And therein rests the value of literature.

Not only from the fountain of daily life do readers draw lessons, but also from fiction.

While politicians, kings, philosophers, and military leaders influence people directly, literary writers do it indirectly; yet they --writers-- cast even a wider net. How many people read Napoleon's Memoirs today? Yet generations upon generations go on reading Stendhal's The Red and the Black and not the Memoirs. What possible lessons, some may ask, have novels such as Ana Karenina, Madame Bovary, and the Scarlet Letter? Why would Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Hawthorne bother to present readers with the age-old problem of adultery?

Tolerance is the answer. By making readers aware of the depths of passion that the human heart harbors, such violence of emotions will linger in our consciousness and see that while some humans are weak in spirit others are strong, yet weak in forgiveness.

By immersing ourselves in the range of passions that we find in the novels mentioned, we learn, we learn tolerance, we learn to be compassionate—we change for the good; that is, for truth, beauty, and goodness.

From Ana Karenina we learn the shock, turmoil, suffering, human disaster, those conflicting passions (that engulf the human heart and mind) that beset characters and readers. In Ana Karenina we learn about the intimacy of a conjugal showdown, as when Ana confronts her husband: "I listen to you and think about him. I love him, I am his mistress, I cannot stay you, I am afraid of you, I hate you ... Do what you like with me."

From Emma Bovary we learn of the unquenchable thirst that even an absurd romanticism and sordid affairs cannot placate: "But who was it that made her so unhappy? Where was the extraordinary catastrophe that overwhelmed her?"

And from Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter we learn of the darkness and light, love and hatred, implacable revenge and redemption that move us in our daily lives: "Hester Prynne will be a living sermon against sin, until the ignominious letter be engraved upon her tombstone."

By presenting the theme of adultery, the authors simply advance the theme for the reader to ponder about such human weakness that destroys many marriages. And this is the transformative power of literature. Readers will bring their own experiences to the novel and will present it to their consciousness where it will linger and perhaps make them change for the good.

Senada Selmani, model

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