Understanding Literature

More than two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Horace claimed that literature is "sweet" and "useful." Since then, literature has been traditionally understood, at least in Western cultures, as having the dual purpose of entertaining and educating its audience. Literary texts are constructed in effect as objects of beauty, sources of pleasure and as conveyors of messages and information. While authors often claim no practical purpose for their works, all literature constitutes an attempt at persuasively conveying certain values and ideas. The entertaining and beautiful aspect of literary works acts in reality as part of the appeal and attractiveness which the work tries to attach to the ideas which it seeks to convey. The beauty of literature is therefore a part of its rhetoric, a device intended to strengthen the overall persuasiveness and influence of the work on its audience. While the entertaining aspect of literature may be rather obvious, understanding the ideas or values which a text advances is not always a simple task. Part of the problem is the fact that the ideas of a literary text are almost always presented in indirect or "symbolic" form. Take for example the following very simple narrative:

 

In itself an amusing story, we know nevertheless that one of the purposes of this fable of Aesop--a Greek storyteller of the 6th century B. C.--is to teach a point about the dangers of greed and the importance of being happy with what we have. Although those points are not literally or explicitly made in the story, they are embedded in its symbolism. In this story, the animal and his actions are not to be taken literally but instead are to be understood as symbolic representations of certain kinds of human character and behavior. An important guide in literary study is the idea that one must always strive to go beyond the literal or the mere appearances of things and search instead for the "meat" of the story. Unlike the dog of Aesop's fable, we should not allow ourselves to be fooled by false appearances. In the reading you will do in this course, you will be engaging in a constant search for the ideas and values which, although often not explicitly mentioned in the texts, constitute the substance of literary works.

 

The fact that literary texts very much seek to convey a message to their audience does not mean that their authors are always fully aware of or even interested in that function of their work. Authors in effect often craft their works in very practical and almost automatic ways and do not bother asking or answering questions as to their significance. What seems most important to authors is to create a pleasing or beautiful object which somehow closely conforms to and expresses the features of an otherwise undefined inward impulse. Many authors in fact are quite hostile toward the interpretation of their works and refuse to have anything to do with it. Samuel Beckett is quoted as having said, "it's bad enough to have to write these books without talking about them too." To begin to understand this odd relation of literature to its authors, we may recall its analogy, noted by Sigmund Freud, to the relation between dreams and dreamers. Just as dreams often convey meaning and information to the dreamer in puzzling symbolic images, literature may be said to function in a similar way. The author of a literary text can be compared to a dreamer transcribing his dreams into written language. But just as a dreamer is often unaware of the meaning of his/her own dreams, writers too cannot always explain what it is that their writings mean. The writing of literature is many times an almost unconscious performance which allows for the halfveiled expression of ideas and concepts which transcend the conscious mental life or avowed intentions of authors. Dealing frequently with highly charged, emotionally loaded, dangerous, or threatening ideas and desires, dreams and literary texts constitute ways of giving 'safe' (i.e. unclear, ambiguous, and concealed) and also powerful and influential expression to materials which, for a variety of reasons, cannot or should not be fully brought into consciousness or verbal expression. Therefore, the opinions and ideas of an author about his/her own work are not necessarily the most reliable guides toward a meaningful interpretation of a text. Like a psychoanalyst and his patient, an intelligent and attentive reader may be able to understand a text better than the very person who wrote it.

 

Given that literature attempts to promote certain ideas, values, or ideologies, one might inquire as to their precise nature and content. All literary works are produced by specific human beings belonging to specific cultures at given historical times and occupying very definite positions within the structures and hierarchies of their societies. Not surprisingly, the ideas and values which literary works seek to promote are influenced by the history, culture and circumstances relevant to the individuals who produce them. Rather than a disinterested or idealistic endeavor, literature is a very worldly and very practical sort of activity aimed at the promotion and dissemination of cultural values and views of the world which are tightly connected to the interests of the author and of the dominant and other powers in her/his society. It should be noted of course that the relation of the author to the powers, institutions, and systems of belief of his/her time can be one of affinity, opposition, or even ambiguity. For these reasons, an understanding of literature and of particular literary texts depends not only on the isolated reading of certain individual works and the consideration of their authors's lives and their circumstances but also upon a solid knowledge and critical examination of the human history, language, and culture (including art, music, philosophy, religion, science, politics, etc.) of which literature forms part and which it represents. The study of literature is therefore an eminently interdisciplinary endeavor through which we attempt to make sense of the human experience throughout history and of the ways in which human beings represent that experience and come to an understanding of themselves and of the world around them.

 

An important feature of literary texts which distinguishes them from other kinds of persuasive discourse is the fact that they operate not through direct statement and explicit revelation of their contents but instead through indirect allusion, understatement, implication, and even concealment. Literary texts in effect often veil the 'truth' which they seek to convey in an attempt at enhancing its attractiveness and endowing it with a sense of mystery and transcendental value. Literature, much like modern advertisement, is often an attempt at persuasion which operates on subliminal levels and artfully instills its message by concealing it under a cover of fictional situations and devices affecting the audience on emotional, intuitive, experiential, and instinctive levels. A given story for example may seek to promote a particular view of the world not by flatly stating it but instead by constructing a set of emotionally charged and seemingly "realistic" situations leading to the almost unavoidable, but always unstated, conclusion of the story's intended moral. Literary texts thus convey meaning to their readers in ways which go far beyond the mere literal or "surface" level of signification. Indeed, literary texts distinguish themselves from other texts by the subtleties and intricacies of their many levels of meaning and by the common fact that the actual "meaning" of the text is almost always hidden and implicit in the fabric of the work's devices. Meaning in literature is therefore something that needs to be determined not merely on the basis of a face value understanding of the words in it but through a complete evaluation of the signifying complexity of the rhetoric, figures of speech, images, symbols, allusions, connotations, suggestions, and implications of the entire text.

 

Given its tendency to speak about its subject indirectly, the essential mode of communication of literature may be said to be a symbolic one. A symbol may be defined in general terms as a signifier of a complex nature which always places its most important referent outside of itself. For the purposes of conveying meaning, literary texts make use of a variety of special signifying devices--known in general as figures or tropes--such as symbols, allegories, metaphors, metonymies, similes, paradoxes, ironies, etc. Although each literary device has a name and a definition, it is not so important to know what they are called so much as to understand that, in general, symbolic figures make indirect references and create semi-invisible chains of association between different sets of images, concepts, and ideas. The associative logic that governs the behavior of those chains of meaning, however, is not always fixed or consistent and often varies widely from text to text and even within a single text. A sensitive and alert reading of a particular text is therefore of paramount importance in discovering the internally-defined logic of association relevant to that text and its parts.

 

While the logic of association of literary texts is unstable and variable, it is almost always grounded on binary systems of distinctions and polar oppositions defined either by literary convention and/or internally within the text. Given a set of basic symbolic oppositions, connections created by symbolic figures in a text are generally governed by similarities to and differences from the basic binary parameters. Being able to perceive similarities and differences between groups of images, words, and ideas in a text is therefore the first step toward the discovery of its underlying categories and structures of symbols and ideas. Take for example a story where a cruel monster is described as having the appearance of a mountain lion and where later we find a seemingly virtuous man also compared to a mountain lion. We can begin to perceive that, although they may seem very different, the text also wants us in a way to place the man and the monster in the same category and perhaps understand that the man is also, in some mysterious sense, a cruel monster. Such a story could in a very subtle way be implying a critical comment concerning the character of its hero or even the virtues cherished in the society in which the hero lives. Often indeed under the fašade of an unbelievable tale of monsters and adventures lies hidden the architecture of an entire set of values and a complex system of thought and ideas.

Outline of important points and issues: