Thoughts on the Nature of Literature

I’ve been an undergraduate and graduate student of literature. I’ve been an English professor, and am currently a freelance writer and editor. I have been a voracious reader for twenty years across all genres, as well as a reader of various national literatures, philosophical texts, and scriptures from myriad ancient religious traditions. Language and literature are therefore central to who I am as a human being, as an individual; they are also the lens through which I interpret the world and communicate that vision to others.

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Literature (fiction, drama, poetry, (auto)biography, memoir, etc.) invites us to become acquainted with ourselves, to become self-aware, to observe human nature and human character through the illumination of that nature and character in the lives, language, motives, and actions of the human beings authors bring to life in their works.

Literature shows us the humanness of our experiences, and the universality of those experiences. The details may be different (gender, time period, locale, even language) but human character, literature has repeatedly and relentlessly shown us for millennia, has not fundamentally changed.

I believe this is the essential and elemental difference between philosophy and literature. To philosophize is to engage the mind in a ceaseless search for the true nature of what can be called “reality.” Philosophers are inspired by the wonder that is inherent in the human mind to go out into the world, and deep into the unlit recesses of the mind, to inquire after the meaning of life, the nature of existence and the universe, and most important, to discover the nature of the self so that we can learn how to live the good life, achieve happiness, and conduct our lives ethically in society.

Literature shows us how human beings like ourselves go about achieving happiness, living the good life, searching for the self, and questioning the nature of reality and what humans have been traditionally taught is the characteristics of that reality.

Modern philosophers, in particular, seem to me uninterested in probing the psychological motives behind human action, but rather interested in elaborating upon the abstract details of the nature of reason and the mind, and how the mind can resolve problems that have emotional and psychological foundations, grounds upon which human reason cannot trespass because the nature of reason is different from that of sensation and emotion, and the psychological issues and traumatic experiences that may be born of them.

Literary authors are more profoundly interested in depicting the whole human, not a human divided by the forces of reason and emotion. And if they do create characters who are divided and cannot unite these forces in a balance that defines the human, then it is with the aim of illustrating the chaotic interpretation and inner experience of a human being torn in two by the tragedy of our modern existence wherein we are divorced from Nature, God, our work, ourselves, and one another that they do so.

Literature acts to hold the mirror of Nature up to ourselves so that we can observe the most human of traits and characteristics in characters who are shaped, like we are, by their thoughts, emotions, language, and actions in a world ultimately not unlike our own but for in its external details, and even then this is not always so.

Philosophy seeks to crack and shatter that mirror and discover who or what it is that was holding that mirror, now a handful of fragments that have splintered our minds from our bodies, our spirit from our flesh. And it has done so, especially in the East, showing us a Void, an Emptiness, that the Western mind is terrified by because since the days of antiquity his body has been seen as separate from and inferior to his mind, his reason.

Literature from the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century in particular has faced this terror as best it can, trying to find a way to recover from this terror, a way to accept this truth, and give us characters who have struggled through the existential crisis of the apparent meaninglessness of man’s existence and either failed or come out on the other side, stepping out of the darkness and into the light of a life worth living in the face of what seems without meaning, value, or purpose. Literature, then, has continued upon the path of its original objective—to elucidate the nature of human character and existence, giving us portraits of humans like ourselves continually trying to create an authentic life against the backdrop of a seemingly absurd world.

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