Thursday, June 9, 2011

How to Interpret Literature: The literary legacy of ancient Greece

Scholars of literature suggest that one can find instances of literary criticism as far back as we can find poems such as epic poetry of Homer and Hesiod, and the lyric poetry of Alcaeu and Sappho in ancient Greece. Homer began his epics with an invocation to the muse, thereby acknowledging that they were written with the help of “divine inspiration”—an idea which will play a considerable role in subsequent history of poetics. Instances of literary criticism can also be identified in critical remarks of Greek dramatists and rhetoricians such as Simonides, Solon and Pindar (that poetry is instructive, that it comes natural to a genius, that it has to be learned by art, that it consists of clever use of words), or in the dramatic festivals of Athens (500 B.C.), which were organized as contests requiring an official judgment about the best drama.

The Athens of 500 B.C. is also the period of great dramatists Euripedes, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Aristophanes, and the philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the schools of rhetoric, and the rise of Athenian democracy and power. In one contest, Aeschylus’ drama is pronounced victorious as it “embodied a peculiar kind of intelligence required for the art of tragedy,” which is deliberately contrasted with the “idle talk” and “fine-drawn quibbles” of the philosopher Socrates. The quarrel between poetry and philosophy is as old as classical Greece, which also means that the considerations of truth and beauty, emotionality and practicality are issues of much contention in matters literary. Pascal was right: “The heart has its reasons, which reason knows not.”

Thought, motive and emotion, indeed are fused in complex (conscious and unconscious) ways in literary creation and criticism. The creative act itself, argues Habib, is a critical act, not only involving inspiration but some kind of self-assessment, reflection, judgment and social pragmatics. In composing his poetry, a poet would have made certain judgments about the themes and techniques to be used in his verse, and what reaction they might evoke in a particular audience.

The Greeks, however, were not entirely focused on the purely technical dimensions of a given text. They wanted to know why a text was written, for whom it was written, and what religious, moral or political purposes motivated it. They also considered historical and cultural circumstances implicit in the text, in addition to issues of its style, language, structure, and the deployment of rhetorical and literary techniques. Literature for them was an important element in the educational process and its ramifications extended over morality, religion, and the entire sphere of civic and political processes. Moreover, in the Greek democratic process, only the adult male citizens were eligible to participate in the decision-making process while women, resident aliens, and a vast number of slaves were permanently excluded. The "creatively conflicting" literary theories of Plato and Aristotle were shaped in the context of these specific epistemological, ethical, political and economic struggles in ancient Greece. The legacy of the two great philosophers still endures in one form or another, which made Samuel Taylor Coleridge say that "one is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

How to Interpret Literature: Introduction

In our world, where political propaganda is wide spread in all cultures, it has become increasingly more important that we read and interpret more critically, and be progressively more mindful of the self and the world, the text and the context, the conscious and the unconscious, the past and the present, and their inevitable inter-connections.

As M.A.R. Habib in his critically acclaimed book, A History of Literary Criticism and Theory, claims: "To study the Bible, Plato, Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, or Roman Law, to study Jewish of African American History, to examine the Quran and the long history of the Western world's fraught engagement with Islam, is to study the sources of the conflicts and cultural tendencies which inform our present world.”

To evolve our understanding of the self, the texts, and the world, it is therefore imperative that we look skillfully and critically, at the multitude of underlying texts--religious, economic, historic, cultural, social, political, literary, aesthetic—and especially those which furnish our identity, our worldview, and not infrequently, our significant reading choices. The dangers of misreading, miseducation and misinterpreting can not only lead to personal stagnation but sometimes cultural conflict and world wars.

And I would argue that identity, reading choices and interpretations, are quite frequently intertwined. We are what we read, and often, we read what we are. Mark Twain, one of the keenest observers of humanity at large, noted the relationship (sometimes unconscious) between identity and reading choices:

"If you know a man's nationality you can come within a split hair of guessing the complexion of his religion: English--Protestant; American--ditto; Spaniard, Frenchman, Irishman, Italian, South American, Austrian--Roman Catholic; Russian--Greek Catholic; Turk--Mohammedan; and so on. And when you know the man's religious complexion, you know what sort of religious books he reads when he wants some more light, and what sort of books he avoids, lest by accident he get more light than he wants. In America if you know which party-collar a voter wears, you know what his associations are, and how he came by his politics, and which breed of newspaper he reads to get light, and which breed he diligently avoids, and which breed of mass-meetings he attends in order to broaden his political knowledge, and which breed of mass-meetings he doesn't attend, except to refute its doctrines with brickbats. We are always hearing of people who are around seeking after truth. I have never seen a (permanent) specimen."

But since reading choices, and hence, identities can evolve--from egocentric, ethnocentric to worldcentric--so can the interpretations of texts and the world. Evolution of consciousness means evolution of meaning and vice versa. Human history is saturated with mostly identity-based (ethnocentric meaning system) conflict and our species is still spending trillions on technologies of violence across nations, at the expense of health, education and well-being of all. And in most cases, not without the consent of the majority of its citizens (even Hitler was democratically elected). And consent is usually based on some interpretation of the texts and rhetoric deployed which "in-form" and empower the will. Whether one believes in "free will" or not, the propaganda chief of Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering was uncannily predictive when he stated: “Naturally the common people don't want war: neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along to fight a war. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

War has been a constant in history and modernity, which verifies Goering's hunch about humans. Hence, it should be indisputably clear that learning to interpret more critically and think more humanely, is no longer a luxury but a necessity, which could be vital to the survival of the human race. As African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates recently said, "the challenge of mutual understanding among the world's multifarious cultures will be the single greatest task that we face, after the failure of the world to feed itself."

Gates challenge can only be adequately met with a truth-seeking, tribe-transcending, growth-oriented (rather than identity-fixated), and planetary-conscious education across-cultures. No matter what identity one subscribes to, or what philosophy one follows, in the end what really matter is: "has human consciousness evolved?" An educated mind is difficult to define but perhaps a capacity to think critically and compassionately, and a willingness to apply multiple perspectives on matters meaningful, regardless of one's political, ethnic, national or religious identity, should be among its major attributes.

So please join us for an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and open minded exploration of some of the major literary theories and their influence on interpretation and education. Excerpts and insights will be posted from some of the major texts on literary theory and criticism.

"We cannot be good citizens,” stresses Habib, “either of a particular country or of the world--by succumbing to the endless forces operating worldwide that encourage us to remain ignorant, to follow blindly, whether in the form of blind nationalism, blind religiosity, or blind chauvinism in all its manifold disguises. One of the keys to counteracting those forces which would keep us in darkness lies in education, and in particular in the process of reading, of close, careful, critical reading."

Acquiring the knowledge, practicing the skills, and continually cultivating the attitude to read diverse texts more openly and critically, could not be more urgent. Hope to hear from you--the why and the wherefore of your reading choices, values and interpretations.