Literature as a way of life

l by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

(January 01, Montreal,Sri Lanka Guardian) It is now a regular occurrence that during every holiday season, somewhere between Christmas and the New Year, I accidentally bump into a book written by Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University who has taught imaginative literature for 55 years. In Bloom I have found wisdom and learning. Yesterday, at the local library, I found his book The Anatomy of Influence – Literature as a way of Life, staring at me from the racks. I immediately pounced on it, not realizing the startling coincidence that has repeated itself at the same time of year for the past five years.
In his book Bloom maps out the thinking of writers through the Sixteenth to Twentieth Centuries and draws a philosophical and literary synergy between such writers as Shakespeare, Whitman, Milton, Shelley, Leopardi, Tennyson, Browning Joyce, Lawrence and other prominent authors of that era, and skilfully proves his thesis that great works of wisdom do nor enter the world in their fully formed versions but are introduced by their authors through impassioned and intensely competitive struggles with the great works that have preceded them. Bloom portrays the evolution of imaginative literature as a string of succession from one great novel or poem to the other, where the latter demonstrates the profound influence the former has wielded over it. In other words, literature is a constant process of improvement of the human mind that attenuates the greatness of creative literary works in progression.
Reading provides us with the wisdom to cope with the vicissitudes of life. Bloom, states in his book, “Where shall Wisdom be Found”, that there are three criteria that impel him to go on reading and teaching: aesthetic splendour, intellectual power and wisdom. Of these, the last is perhaps the most useful for survival. Wisdom is the ability to make correct judgments and decisions, and remains an intangible quality gained through experience. A standard philosophical approach to wisdom is that it involves making the best use of available knowledge.
Curiously, another book that was beside Bloom’s book at the library was an exceptionally readable one on more or less the same topic. This was Tolstoy and the Purple Chair written by Nina Sankovitch, a corporate lawyer and an enduring bibliophile. Her thesis is that the preeminent function of literature is to heal, to nurture and to connect us to our truest selves. The author recalls the painful experience of losing her closest friend – her older sister Anne-Marie – to cancer when the latter was 46 years old, and how the love of books that the two sisters shared from their infancy rescued the author from despair and sorrow.
Sankovitch says of her love of reading which led to her resolve to read a book a day for 365 days continuously: “words are witness to life. They record what has happened and they make it all real. Words create stories that become history and become unforgettable. Even fiction portrays truth: good fiction is truth. Stories, about life remembered bring us backward while allowing us to move forward” .
In the midst of instant gratification of the senses provided in the modern world by gizmos and gadgets, reading has fast become the intellectual equivalent of eating one’s broccoli and brussels sprouts. The old and proven adage: “in reading lies knowledge and in knowledge lies wisdom” sadly is receding to the background in a fast moving world. New texting language has made a mockery of sensible and correct communication and the exchange of ideas.
Reading provides us with the wisdom to cope with the vicissitudes of life. Bloom, states in his book, “Where shall Wisdom be Found”, that there are three criteria that impel him to go on reading and teaching: aesthetic splendour, intellectual power and wisdom. Of these, the last is perhaps the most useful for survival. Wisdom is the ability to make correct judgments and decisions, and remains an intangible quality gained through experience. A standard philosophical approach to wisdom is that it involves making the best use of available knowledge.
I believe that reading enhances one’s own consciousness about oneself and life through the consciousness of the characters in a book. At the age of 16 when I read Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Illyich, where an old man, a High Court Judge who lived a righteous life lies dying and resentful of the fact that he did not deserve to die at his age and his young children visit him, his consciousness extended to my own, giving me my first experience of death and the inequity and intransigence of life. Again, Tolstoy’s Count Vronski in Anna Karenina extended my sensitivity to the dangers of glamour, position, power and the vileness of infidelity. Anna Karenina’s position with regard to her inability to divorce Karenin, her husband exposed her own dilemma of illicit love against the rigid social mores of her time.
In a sense, we live in a dangerous era of deplorable insouciance with regard to appreciation of literature. An unknown author has said: “A good book on your shelf is a friend that turns its back on you and remains a friend”. Edward P. Morgan said: “A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy”. It is the only time that one can freely let his mind wander without being constrained by the shackles of society.
Apart from imaginative writing, one can indulge in analytical writing, which is the inquiry into fact. Reading such material makes one aware of what is going on in the world. This makes one a public intellectual versed in affairs of “men and matters”. An imaginative book is Either essential for introspection and self awareness; an analytical book is essential for intellectual maturity.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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