Literature: The Last Standing Lighthouse by Mariana Debono
“A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry
Countries waging war, that is to say, humanity waging war against humanity, rulers upholding nuclear weapons in order to safeguard their sovereignty, terrorist attacks escalating like wild fire, workers being exploited in obscurity, vulnerable women undergoing female genital mutilation, innocent children murdered prior to birth, asylum seekers snubbed — the list is endless.
When contemplating on all of the above, anyone deemed humane is bound to feel uncomfortable — burdened, almost. Such phenomena have been taking place for centuries. One would think that, by now, the lesson would have been learnt, and yet, it is clear that it has not. Shall we, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn rightfully asked once, “have the temerity to declare that we are not responsible for the sores of the present-day world?”
Hence, this causes us to question how such injustices could be amended; it seems foolish to suppose that we could eradicate them once and for all, however. Evidently, certain mishaps are utterly out of our control, and yet, in spite of this, we must not adopt the ‘blessed is he who accepts’ outlook: a rather crude form of ‘bystander apathy’. In complete contrast to this, we must act, and we must do so with prudence and care, and by subscribing to a set of noble ideals. Without an ideal blueprint, the architect could never bring his craft into being. Without an ideal, the very possibility of progress falters.
Contending that there is room for progress, one is left with the task of looking for the tools with which to generate such progress. Education may present itself as a promising candidate, and yet, theoretical education in its barest state will fail to bring about the necessary change. This is due to its inability to stimulate the human ‘will’ and, hence, to instil the sufficient ‘motivation’ for righteous behaviour. For it is our ‘will’, our emotive side, that dictates our actions, not our intellect. That being said, the question therefore becomes about how one is to make his ‘will’ will good actions. How is the ‘good will’, which Immanuel Kant so fervently prioritised, formulated?
The tool I am proposing is literature, an instrument which is capable of inciting this progress. Literature is language manifesting itself creatively; it is the only tool available to us human beings with which we could, somehow, inculcate some measure of humanity and compassion in one other, accomplishing this in a world which lacks both. Compassion is the child of Pity, and Pity the child of Selflessness; it belongs to the man who sees himself in others, one who recognises the plight of the human condition and is able to relate to it, understand it and is, ultimately, able to act. The French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau stated a similar belief in his treatise Emile, contending that it is only he who pities, and is able to put himself in the shoes of another, that can be good and virtuous: “When combined with pity, [the] imagination puts us in the place of the miserable man”. As a result, instead of feeling envy or enmity, we are able to metaphysically comprehend the other with compassion. Rousseau’s use of the word ‘imagination’ reels in the notion of literature.
Be it through novels, drama, poetry, music or film, literature always employs the same method: defamiliarising the reader and showing him a whole new array of possibilities that he might have never felt or even experienced. We can all relate and learn from Hamlet’s plight — this is partially why this play is so widely read. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness tells us of the horror and evil that reside within us, yet which we often disregard; Kurtz is not just a fictional man, he is us. C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe portrays forgiveness as the greatest, most valued act to be practised. We froth at the mouth while watching Schindler’s List because we are able to recognise the evil wrongdoings of the Holocaust, and thus condemn them. Whitman’s poem ‘O me! O life!’ is able to plant the seed of hope within us, portraying life in a beautiful light and thus destroying the nihilistic worldview that has permanently fused to our lifestyle. Orwell’s 1984 urges us to be cautious of the dangers of utopic aspirations and totalitarianism. Storm of Steel, a novel by Ernst Junger, sheds light on the horrors of war through the eyes of an ordinary soldier. The list is endless. We must not forget that such themes, capturing both the negative and the positive side of human life, ultimately teach us lessons that could never become anachronistic. This sentiment is rightfully echoed by the Russian Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his address:
Who might succeed in impressing upon a bigoted, stubborn human creature the distant joy and grief of others, an understanding of dimensions and deceptions which he himself has never experienced? Propaganda, constraint, scientific proof — all are useless. But fortunately there does exist such a means in our world! That means is art. That means is literature.
Literature is capable of exposing the danger in certain motives like envy, selfishness, blinded ambition, pride, and resentment, and even shows us, at times, the virtue in others. It is a telescope that magnifies human behaviour and analyses it, exposing both the wickedness and sublimity of human life and its course.
Essentially, it is up to the author and his skill to instil compassion. If one is unable to impel oneself to act virtuously by means of self-discipline, he may, instead, turn to literature, not merely for the sake of pleasure or distraction, but to become better, for the sake of goodness itself.
That being said, one is bound to realise that reading literature alone is not sufficient. Once our compassion is roused and we are fully aware of our wrongdoings, we must be practical and act accordingly. I propose that one ought to engage in simple acts that, simple as they are, could make the greatest difference. We must contemplate what is right and wrong and, above all, evaluate our own actions critically. In the words of Socrates, “Let him who would move the world first move himself.” It is only after one has a clearer conception of both himself and the world that he will then be able to flourish and reform.
I hope to have demonstrated well enough the importance of literature and the role it plays. It is a powerful tool that, as anything else, could be manipulated, yet, if used correctly, certainly has the power to make the greatest difference.
This article was primarily written as a reaction to a number of propositions that suggested that Literature should no longer be a compulsory subject taught at secondary schools: an act which, I believe, outright fails to take into consideration all the above points, and more.