Sunday, April 24, 2011

Why is Literature Important?

"If they can get you to ask the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers."

This is a line from Thomas Pynchon's famous novel, Gravity's Rainbow. A similar situation arose from asking questions to businessmen while researching their companies. If the questions that I ask them are not relevant according to them, then they don't need to worry about answering them accurately. Any answer would suffice as long as my sense of curiosity is satisfied. It takes to be a really good financial analyst, to figure out the relevant questions & to be a very good conversationalist in order to put these questions in the right context. Unless these questions are asked properly, the relevant & really important information that we seek, lies hidden.

I think this is also the nature of literature (or fiction, in general). There are questions & there are answers - they are not always pleasing to everyone. But they need to be put into the right context so that their answers will have some relevance to our life. We humans lead contemplative lives throughout which we ask these questions, about ourself, about the state of the world, about nature of things around us. And mostly we fail. Most of us don't get to see the answers the way they should be because we have our own lens to look at the world. The questions are tainted by our own observation & interpretation of things. Things are unresolved in our minds which is usually mistaken as a clear viewpoint whenever it becomes part of a chain of thought. The belief that if its a thought in our minds then it must be a tangible understanding of some concept seems wrong. This misleading judgement pushes us in two directions. The first one is the passive, complacent acceptance of our own ideas as the right version of everything. The other is an unsettling need to find several other versions of the same truth. In our confusion we try to compare our life with how others are living theirs & come up with these hopeless benchmarks of right / wrong ways to live.

Truth is not some abstract understanding of the world, but perhaps a way to frame the question properly so the answer emerges out of it.

Why are these questions important & what is the use of those answers?

The questions are an inevitable part of being human. In our truly idle moments we spend painfully long hours in connecting the dots. Dots that would be any parts of our life. Life is an abstract concept which is only finalized by the reality of death. Such a binary outcome of our existence seems too daunting to go through without some clarity about who we are & what are we doing here. The questions seem to form a part of this process to connect the dots between our existence & its significance. Its significance to us & relative to the world around us.

The job of a writer is not just to create a fantastic world view & an entertaining plot. Its job is to create a world which we can relate to. Once we can relate to this world thats been verbally pulled over our eyes, we start imagining ourselves as a part of this world. We truly connect to the symbolism, to the characters & their relationships amongst themselves. We start seeing things from their perspective, just in case, to understand what we would do in the same situation. This adjustment of worlds leaves us totally vulnerable to these questions & thus we become more receptive to our own thoughts. We start treading cautiously into the unknown territory, we are wary of the imagery & begin to anticipate what might happen on the turn of the page. And when we least expect any looming thought around the curb of the next page, the writer introduces these questions. The very same questions that we ask ourselves, to get to know who, why, how, what we are. Of course they are not so obvious, but they start to emerge from the text. They build anxiety, they build doubt & they build confidence at the same time - that we can at least take a shot at answering these questions. In our fear of finding the ugly truth about ourselves, deeply hidden within a labyrinth of our thoughts, we finally start seeing light. It seems less embarrassing to ask ourselves those pointed questions & make meaning of our lives. It brings us the courage to come face to face with the fact that we have been what we have been so far, does it make sense? Is this the best I can get or do? Whats more? Am I pretending to be someone else?

Countless amount of wealth is spilt on psychotherapy, by millions of people to find the same answers. Or even to be able to face the same questions. Fear of the unknown is a natural part of our thought process & its evolution's ironic gift. It teaches us our limitations & at the same time keeps us from crossing them. But most of the fears that we have can be resolved mechanically, if not logically. But the fear of truly knowing who we are & to be afraid to find out that the answer might be unpleasant - is present in all of us.

The writer & his literature then becomes a tunnel for us to guide these thoughts to the light at the end. The light does not symbolize any clarity or the tunnel doesn't lead to any field of answers to our questions, but it leads us into a light of our own thoughts & our own ability to ask ourselves - 'Who am I'?

But one question remains, which only the reader can solve for itself - If we truly find out what we really are & it's unpleasant according to us, can't we do something about it & change it into something relatively better or do we seek comfort in not finding the tumour & let the cancer spread till it eats us alive?

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