What is Literature?

Richie Varghese Koshy (I BA PYEN 22PYEN44)

It is the beginning of all. We are here at Kristu Jayanti College to spend the three most precious years of our lives to find answers to some questions, like the one we were asked in ‘Introduction to Literature’ course. What is Literature? When this question was posed to us today, I started thinking. What is literature? My mind skipped over all the answers my classmates offered. ‘Writing things’, ‘stories and poems’, ‘something that lets us express our feelings’. As one of the most influential forms of art to ever exist, these answers seemed far too shallow. Then again, I doubt that anyone could ever answer this question in a ten-second time frame. I decided to try and answer the question myself.

“I have loved people, I have loved books, I have loved flowers, the sun, moon and stars, old roads, old trees, children, grannies, butterflies, seashells, fairies… And of course I keep falling in love, for where love begins, there is the border of heaven.”

That was an excerpt from Ruskin Bond’s ‘Falling in Love Again’, and that is where you find part of the answer. Where love begins, there is the border of heaven. Literature is a love story. A love story told by countless genius minds, a love story meant to comfort and care for countless others. The readers sink into the words, conscious of the fact that they are safe, revelling in the knowledge that they have something to love, content in the fact that the words they read, the lines they shed tears over, the stories that take them to different worlds are theirs, and theirs alone. Literature has the power to open portals to parallel universes, the power to grant relief to those who grew weary of their tiring existence. A book holds its readers close while they sob, a poem wipes your tears away, and a single, masterfully crafted quote changes how you feel about yourself. The love literature has for its audience is unparalleled. I do think of the wide world of literature as something sentient, something that feels, something with the capacity to care.

Literature is love.

Anything that has the capacity to love (and to be loved) holds incredible power. As I mentioned earlier, literature is one of the most influential forms of art to ever exist. Dante composed The Divine Comedy when atheism and agnosticism was at an all-time high, and the effect it had on the masses can never be understated. He took readers on an uncensored tour of hell as seen from his visionary mind, and it was enough to scare multitudes into believing. He single-handedly gave the Catholic Church control over the general population and simultaneously changed the way we saw hell and the afterlife forever. His masterpiece inspired countless works of art, and hordes of artists, poets and authors. It grabbed the world’s attention and shook it to its core. This example alone is enough to display literature's influence and power over the world. Words have the capacity to start wars, to end nations and to build new ones. Literature seeps through the cracks in the walls, it surrounds us and is in the very air we breathe. Our thoughts are shaped by the words we read, our actions are reflections of the ideals we hold, and they are formed through the media we consume. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. The words we piece together will be seen by the world. Your ideals and policies will most definitely be judged. The things you say have the potential to hurt you. When you express yourself, know that there will always be people who, to put it mildly, disagree with your opinions. You never know who might be the next Salman Rushdie, the next Hugo Bettauer. The world has never been kind to the rebels or those who dared. Words have power, and the world knows this, which is exactly why it makes sense to see literature as a destructive power. Donald Trump’s speech, along with multiple tweets and statements made by his followers, caused the Capitol riot, directly led to five people's deaths and injured multiple others. There’s a reason the saying “The pen is mightier than the sword exists”. You see, in most cases, the pen caused the fight that the sword had to take part of. Literature should be seen as a force similar to the oceans that wrap around the Earth. It hosts life, nurtures it. The ocean provides and protects. The ocean can sink countries if it wanted to. And just like that awesome power,

Literature has the world at its mercy.

I described literature as something sentient. It feels wrong to confine something with the power to change the world to a piece of paper. Literature should be seen as what it is, a ravenous beast with an insatiable drive to change everything it reaches, a beast who can change its shape as and when the situation calls for it. Yes, literature is the purest form of human expression. And as such, we need to realize that it grows, developes, adapts. The author who puts pen to paper and tears into their fears with ease, the poet who captures seemingly indescribable emotions and gifts them to us, the orator who waxes lyrical about anything and everything they feel. What is literature if not the expression of what it means to be human? Literature is an inherently human skill, one that sets us apart from animals. Everything human keeps evolving, and literature has grown enough to warrant a new definition, a definition that doesn’t describe it as “written works”. It will keep growing, and will take new forms as long as humans exist. Who knows, maybe in thirty years, books may become obsolete. Poems may be seen the same way we see any other extinct form of literature. This doesn’t mean that literature will die. After all,

Literature is human.

Have you ever stopped and thought of how mind-blowing the concept of literature is? It practically lets us travel through time. Literature lets you turn into a vessel that holds the nectar concocted by minds who were born, who lived, cried and died long before our time. Literature knows no bounds, it races through time and space, it pulls you in and takes you on a journey through the years. Literature is proof that as long as someone knows you, as long as someone knows who you were, what you stood for, you’ll never die. We laugh over jokes made decades ago, we cry because of words spoken centuries ago, and we let our lives be dictated by rules framed years before our grandparents came into existence. Literature is pretty much the only thing time has no power over. Hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, millenia pass. Empires rise and fall. Humans live and die. Words endure. It doesn’t matter where you stand, it doesn’t matter what rules you live by, you have to respect literature’s insistence on staying alive. Ever since the dawn of civilization, humans have instinctively seeked something, someone, to worship. A power to look up to, a power to guide them. An all-powerful, immortal power. We made gods and goddesses, crafted heaven and hell, prayed to them, lived for them, all the while ignoring the true power. The power that loves us. The power that chooses not to destroy the world. Immortal. A power that grew and changed with humanity. Indomitable. Isn’t it obvious?

Literature is a god.

I still don’t know why I spent time making this. I spent time that could have been used for something more productive doing this. My back aches and my eyes are sore, my throat is dry and my cup is empty. I feel a strange sense of fulfillment, coupled with the feeling that I failed. I know that spending six hours on this is hardly enough to satisfy myself. I know that literature is so much more than this. Maybe one day, I will be wise enough to provide an accurate definition on what literature is. I’m sorry if this makes no sense, I’m sorry if this feels like the tired ramblings of a sleep-deprived first year. Maybe it is. But in the end, I feel content in the fact that I tried. I tried breathing life into a seemingly lifeless question. And I hope I did just that.

Maybe the forthcoming years in KJC might help me figure out more about this fundamental question.

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