by Aidan Chivers
I barely had time to walk over to my seat, sit down, and look up nervously before my interviewer fired me the question:
‘So what’s the point of literature?’
Fumbling around frantically for a suitably profound response, I remember stammering something about its potential for uniting people and the common ground it can help us find with others. Needless to say, there was considerable relief on my part as the discussion moved on to something more specific and rather less abstract.
Yet there are few sensations more rewarding than discovering in someone else’s writing an aspect of something which you had believed to be personal, private, and unique to yourself.
Who could fail to recognise the early fires of Dido’s infatuation in the early part of the fourth book of the Aeneid? Or a touch of the jealousy so dominant in Shakespeare’s Othello? Who, indeed, has ever made it through the infamous ‘fifth week blues’ without feeling a tinge of the spleen evoked so beautifully by Baudelaire? For Alan Bennett’s character Hector in The History Boys, the discovery in literature of one’s own thoughts and feelings is ‘as if a hand has come out and taken yours.’
A better answer to my perplexing interview question might have involved not just the common ground between reader and author, but also the differences in worldview which we can encounter through reading.
Literature is best when it not only reinforces our understanding of the world, but challenges it. It can pull us away into another, separate reality, before throwing us suddenly back into our everyday lives as the last page is turned, the last line reached, the end of the scroll unfurled. It can challenge our preconceptions, show us another way of thinking, and invite us to go out and see life from a totally new perspective.
With his Brave New World, Aldous Huxley presents us with a futuristic, ostensibly perfect society which is orientated purely towards achieving superficial happiness, but which is ultimately devoid of all emotional experiences and connections. Yet even when stripped of anything meaningful to express by Huxley’s sanitised, emotionless utopia, one character, Helmholtz, still finds himself entranced by the potential power of words.
Turning to scientific vocabulary for his simile, he tells us that ‘words can be like X-rays, if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.’
And in the world we inhabit, where we are blessed with a rich range of emotion which characterises human experience, language can be the medium which binds us meaningfully to those around us and saves our soul from suffocation.
But it is not just the written form of language that can have this remarkable effect of influencing and helping mould our own personal conception of the world.
Even the most casual of conversations can introduce us to another human being’s perspective on life. Speech allows us to communicate ideas, discuss abstract concepts, and share our own unique way of seeing the world.
Even on a subconscious level, the very way we speak can betray our geographical, social and educational backgrounds. And, if we wish, the complexity of human language can let us convey the deepest, most intangible aspects of our personality, opening us up so another person can see through our eyes.
During the latter part of every December, the whole of ancient Rome used to celebrate the Saturnalia. This was a religious festival like no other: usual social norms were disregarded, with slaves taking the positions of their masters, who in turn took orders from them.
Slaves were allowed a taste of the privileges their owners typically enjoyed, whilst the richer strata of society acquired a fresh, vivid understanding of the lives of those who normally served them. Each returned to their respective realities with a newly enhanced sense of mutual understanding and insight into each other’s positions in life.
Any kind of human interaction can play a similar role. Engaging with people is all about seeing the same things around us in a wholly different light.
The closer we get to someone, the better our ability to see the world they see.
It was the Roman playwright Terence who told us there are ‘tot homines, quot sententiae’ – as many different viewpoints as there are people to hold them. Meaningful interaction and the constant small-scale switching of perspectives which comes with it, allows us to see more and more of these sententiae. And words are perhaps our best means of discovering them.
Alan Bennett’s metaphorical ‘hand’ from The History Boys need not take the form of a long-dead author. It need not be such a formal process as the ancient Roman festival dedicated to Saturn. Sometimes it is just a moment of mutual understanding, the sharing of a late-night cup of tea, or just the briefest exchange of smiles.
Every time we absorb a new piece of literature, every time we engage with someone on an emotional level, every time we look right into someone’s eyes and see the whole world reflected back in their pupils, we conduct our own intimate Saturnalia.