Thursday, December 10, 2009

What is Literature?

For centuries, literature has been an essential element of what has been considered to be a complete education of the human person. Although education is often considered to be a matter of the intellect, intelligent observers of human nature know that there is a lot more to the human person than the thinking mind. One of these non-intellectual “parts” is the Enthusiastic Part, that in the human person which acts, desires to act, et cetera. Literature can be defined as written works insofar as they are allied with the Enthusiastic part of the human person, as opposed to the intellectual part. By seeing what this definition includes, it will be shown that this definition is a workable definition of the word “literature.”
First, it is necessary to describe a few ways in which something can be allied to the Enthusiastic Part. One of the most obvious ways is through the emotions. Something that awakens or quiets emotions, whether the awakener/quieter be literature, music, an event, or anything else, has an effect on the Enthusiastic Part because the emotions effect what one desires (i.e., what one has enthusiasm for). For example, a symphony awakening emotions of bravery (even if it has no articulate meaning) can inspire a person to do heroic deeds. Something that inspires or satisfies the imagination also has an effect on the Enthusiastic Part because it is natural for humans to be affected profoundly on an emotional/non-intellectual level by images. For example, the act of carving a sculpture could give the sculptor a greater love either of the thing he is carving or of Beauty itself because by his action, the Beauty or the thing has been made into an image through his imagination.
Finally, many forms of mysticism employ the use of the Enthusiastic Part. Loving Union with God, the highest mysticism, is the final end of this human faculty, for this faculty includes the will. Because of the interconnectedness of the will, the desires, the emotions, and the imagination, what happens to any one part affects the others. For example, the music one listens to could very well affect what music they “hear” in a visionary mystical experience (such as a vision had by the saints). Alternatively, the poetry one reads could effect what causes a more “everyday” mystical experience (such as a profound consolation in prayer or a flash of intuition). Theoretically, this mystical experience could in turn inform or improve one’s desires, or even one’s intellect. The insights gained in a prayer consolation, for example, could conceivably cause one to learn something about God that is true but perhaps not provable.
Literature quite obviously effects the emotions of man; through these, it can also effect mysticism and other elements of the Enthusiastic part. The epic style of Paradise Lost, for example, produces an atmosphere of “gravitas” in the work that inspires the reader to treat the story of man’s fall with the depth it deserves. In A Tale of Two Cities, The detailed characterization of Lucie Manette and Madame Defarge leads the reader through a system of emotional approval and disapproval to an appreciation of virtue and a hatred of vice. The Chestertonian plots in Tales of the Long Bow draw attention and thought to the themes of the book by their humor and absurdity.
Literature also effects the imagination of man; this also can effect mysticism and the rest of the Enthusiastic part. By personifying the West Wind in “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley engages the imagination of the reader, allowing him to enter into the emotion expressed more fully. The clever jokes in The Importance of Being Earnest could distract frivolous Victorian readers from the potentially offensive fact that they themselves are the ones being satirized, thus better allowing the message to sink in.
This definition of literature in no way excludes wide variations in the quality of things that fit the definition. According to the definition, comic books, for example, are literature because their melodramatic plotlines and exaggerated illustrations and characterizations appeal to a real set of emotions. Their plots are the result of the imaginative processes of the author and engage the imaginations of the readers. This is not to say that comic books are good literature, however. The simplicity and exaggeration of many of the plots, characters, and emotions appeal mainly to the most basic and simple elements in the Enthusiastic Part, severely limiting the breadth and depth of the ways in which the comic books can fulfill their purposes as literature.
The definition of literature also allows for wide variations in the degree in which a given work of literature fits the definition. To begin with, the Summa Theologica is not literature at all because any effect that it has on the Enthusiastic Part occurs through the ideas expressed, not through the work itself. Plato’s Republic fits the definition to a very limited degree; although it is primarily a work of philosophy like the philosophical parts of the Summa, the fact that the work is a dialogue allows for the reader’s imagination and emotions to be slightly engaged. Plato’s Phaedo is still more literary than the Republic because the emotional appeal of the martyrdom of Socrates, as well as the dialogue style, draw the reader in through his emotions. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather is still more literary than the Phaedo because the argument of the story in favor of priestly virtue is primarily presented in the context of a story, not the context of an argument. Finally, the Song of Songs is more literary than all of the above, even though it is from the Bible, because it presents the theme of Loving Union with God (the theme most important to the Enthusiastic Part) in a way that primarily appeals to the imagination and the emotions.
Literature can be defined as written works insofar as they are allied with the Enthusiastic Part of the human person. This definition has been tested and found satisfactory. Based on the role of the Enthusiastic Part in the life of the human person, this definition highlights literature’s importance in the complete education of the human person.