Power of Literature #
Appropriated and adapted and from Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher, 2021
Language is just one way of expressing our sorrows, loneliness, anxieties, trauma, hope, joy, love and tranquility.
History tells us about the insiders, literature about the outsiders.
“The pen is mightier than the sword” but “Is a word processor more powerful than a nuclear warhead?”
The first writing extant comes from the Sumerian city of Ur, centre of the Sargon Empire, (The Cradle of Civilisation) who in 3000 BC began stamping cuneiform characters on quick drying clay to keep track on the increasing trade with other empires – timber from Lebanon, copper from Magan, jeweled blue stones from Afghanistan …
Sumerian writing: #
Enheduanna, the brightest of King Sargon’s daughter was tasked with keeping track of the trade and became the priestess of the Ziggurat of Ur. She is the first to record in writing the oral incantations and other oral tales. The hymns celebrate the mysteries of the universe.
O Feeder of life, Rising like a bull from the snake shallows, Born from a great mother, Light above all
The self-made name, Enheduanna, translates from “She is the high lord of the moon”.
O goddess, from my altar days, I, Enheduanna, sang your name …
I, Enheduanna, created this booklet- A thing which no one else had ever created.
The great power of literature comes from the narrative – we all love a story, and of stirring emotions and the fending off of our demons.
Love Prayer to Shu-Sin O Man I ask You freely, Master me, Open up your temple to my touch And sweet my dark night with your love.
Sung 3 centuries later upon another moony tabernacle at Ur.
Egyptian writing #
There can be no doubt Egypt has a profound influence of Western Civilisation’s culture and religions. Together with the eastern Indo regions, most religions have recurring archetypes, rituals and icons originating in Egypt.
The gentle flooding of the Nile river each year as the result of rains farther south in the Blue Mountains, provided a source of nutriments and water for fertility. Egyptians developed a softer nature and perceived the world as the father earth and the sky mother. The raging floods of the Euphrates and may have influenced a more aggressive and militaristic culture in the middle east.
Ra, the chief visible emblem of the solar system. A hymn in the tomb of Sita (c. 1370 BCE) reads:
“Praise be to thee, O Ra, thou exalted power….thou One who bringest into being that which has been begotten, behold thy body is Horus”. Horus, the son of Osiris and Isis is an incarnation, or anthropomorphic embodiment of the divine. Ra is the One and alone creator who made all things.
Mother and Child: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/548310
Osiris was believed to be the son of god, he suffered betrayal, mutilation and death at the hands of evil and that after a great struggle he rose again. He represented the ideal of a person who was both god and human because he could identify with those who suffered. Just like Christ, “for in that he has suffered being tempted, he is able to help them that are tempted” Hebrews. Horus, the sun of Osiris was so closely associated with Horus, they were like one. “I and the Father am one”. John’s gospel.
A hymn to Osiris and Horus presages the Messiah “Homage to thee, O thou king of kings, lord of lords, and princes of princes”.
Some of the earlier Egyptian poetry of Sinuhe (1875 BC).
The Story of Sinuhe (also known as Sanehat) is considered one of the finest works of ancient Egyptian literature. It is a narrative set in the aftermath of the death of Pharaoh Amenemhat I, founder of the 12th Dynasty of Egypt, in the early 20th century BC. It was composed around 1875 BC, although the earliest extant manuscript is from the reign of Amenemhat III, c. 1800 BC.
O may the King of Egypt show mercy to me, that I may live by his mercy. May I salute the Lady of the Land who is in his Palace. May I hear the behests of her children. O let my flesh grow young again, for old age has befallen, feebleness has overtaken me, mine eyes are heavy, my hands are weak, my legs refuse to follow, my heart is weary, and death approaches me, when they shall bear me to the city of Eternity. Let me serve my Sovereign Lady. O let her discourse to me of her children’s beauty. May she spend an eternity over me!
Echoed in some of the Psalms of David in the Old Testament.
Later Egyptian culture became associated with Bacchanalian or Dionysian Indulgence, luxury, hedonism, sensualism, leisure leading to decadence or Chaos and dissipation. Contrasted with Roman discipline, Egyptians were full of Warmth, passion, lust. Socially they were more gregarious. Connoisseur, gourmet, wanton.
The Greeks at Troy were aggressive warriors, The Trojans much more civilised and cultured. Who won?
The urge to create is one of our most primal and instinctive – artefacts, monuments, art, procreate.
All art is the act of creating something from nothing; improving on a blank space.
Order out of chaos, clarity out of confusion, sense out of the senseless, inspiration out of nothing.
All the authors are prepared to devote any amount of time and intellectual industry, and to renounce almost everything, in the exhausting bid to wrestle the world into words, leaving us to revere the result and to inquire how much was entailed in the sacrifice. Anthony Lane
Purpose of Writing #
Soul - lifter - illustrating our resilience in overcoming tribulations and adversity
Though literature depicts pain and suffering; the inner truth of experience, the authenticity of emotion can be cleansing to a defiled world.
Writers recognise the beauty in brokenness and find ways to repair the wounds of the past.
Hannah Gadsby, Margaret Atwood, Amanda Gorman….
Literature can enflame our determination to pursue justice. - Susan Sage
Esteemed by some philosophers as the highest virtue, the delivery of justice demands and rivets attention. And the opposite is true as well: the perceived miscarriage of justice commands attention, sparking outrage and condemnation.
All Art attempts to articulate pre-rational human awareness of the world around us, natural phenomena, our place in nature and our capacity for self-reflexion. It expresses our dark intuitions that cannot be articulated in the light of reason.
Freud claimed all great art originated from a diseased mind, while Robert Frost admits that “being a poet is not a profession; it is a condition”. Though they attempt to hide behind masks, most poets express their deepest guilt, fears, insecurities, hopes, ecstasies or obsessions, all the while pretending to be creating art. Writing is being haunted by your own ghosts, only exorcised by expression.
I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn. Anne Frank
“Writers know that talent is real, success is arbitrary, and that the relationship these two facts bear to each other is a mystery.” B. D. McClay
Art happens when someone wants to do it and needs to express an idea.
Advertising and propaganda start from given ends and work backward to means. Literature explores life by inquiry. Genuine art attempts to depict the essence to establish the truth. Charles Rosen was driven by ceaseless curiosity and the urge to share his knowledge.
“‘Creating’, wrote Albert Camus, ‘is living doubly’. He was thinking about Proust when he wrote those words – the Frenchman’s assiduous assembling of the living details of his world. The carpets, the flowers, the wallpaper patterns, the dresses, the table settings, the jewellery and walking sticks, the teacakes and bed blankets: the sheer clutter of stuff in space and time. His imagination was like some nightmare.”
Make Wonder #
Literature has to engage people, either emotionally, viscerally or cerebrally. It needs to appeal to their hearts and minds. It needs to create anticipation.
The movie world fail to deliver anything for their audiences beyond not-so-cheap thrills. But to expect cinema to “enlighten” its audience is to adopt a very narrow definition of cinema. The medium can also be an escapist opiate for unhappy masses, state propaganda, commercial marketing and a reinforcement of existing experience and structures of power. Cinema is an art form that brings you the unexpected.
A good writer creates suspense, resolves situations, while creating more suspense to keep the reader reading. The Plot twist
The writer needs to convince the reader to believe the narrative, even though both know that it is fiction. Margaret Atwood
I am a believer in fictions. I don’t want us to be leached of all fantasy. It wouldn’t be healthy, nor enjoyable, nor possible. But, at the same time, when people believe these fictions in a dangerous way—and some of them truly are lethal, the racist fictions and so forth—we need to think about how to prevent such toxic credulity. Marina Warner
“He knew everything there was to know about literature, except how to enjoy it” Heller – Catch 22
George Eliot: “if Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.”
If literature about empathy – learning what it is like to be another person, then writers should write as deeply and completely about characters who are real people but who are not themselves; They should create different characters so our imagination is expanded into understanding what’s it’s to be a character who is not you - especially the evil ones. By reading, we can see what we have in common with the “others” and find our central self. Everyone imagines themselves the hero of their own stories.
Empathy - feeling (identifying) with someone’s else’s pain.
Sympathy - feeling sorry for someone.
Antipathy - feeling against someone.
Apathy - no feeling – could be a callous indifference.
What triggers empathy?
Our ability depends on a shared language. As Hannah Arendt wrote,
“We know from experience that no one can adequately grasp the objective world in its full reality all on his own, because the world always shows and reveals itself to him from only one perspective, which corresponds to his standpoint in the world and is determined by it.”
“This book is without a scrap of sentimentality but provokes a deep emotional response: not from poignancy but in awe at the precision with which Riley records her grief. It is often too painful to read, but too valuable not to.” John Self, The Guardian
Robert Frost’s poem Home Burial: “The nearest friends can go / With anyone to death, comes so far short / They might as well not try to go at all.”
People are more likely to empathise with, and help, single victims of hardship, particularly if they are ‘individuated’ by qualities such as name and face. Stalin’s dictum that “one death is a tragedy; the death of a million people is a statistic” rings true.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1962, by Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn chronicles the crushing brutality of daily life in the Soviet Union’s Gulags. Despite all his deprivations, the novella ends on a positive note of fulfilled pride; Ivan is happy because he accomplished building a brick wall.
Empathy requires perspective. It is much easier to understand someone if you put yourself into their situation via insights derived from language, story and feeling - pathos.
Writers can manipulate our response by how we relate to their characters; either positively or negatively. We can hold them close or distance ourselves. Either engage or detach. Accept or reject their moral codes.
“Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.” To put yourself in their shoes.
Writers need to lull us into a believable kind of excitement, invoking a sense of foreboding - a kind of temporary fear for and uncertainty of an original character.
There are two different types of empathy. The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley beautifully depicts what they are:
‘“Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety.
“Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions.’ We can be emotionally alienated or distanced from the characters by irony or comedic situations.
We empathize based on the reaction to others. What I’d also say is that empathy can be cultivated and learned through experiences. Store away in your memory those feelings that you feel both in reaction, and as you put things in perspective. Write these thoughts out, analyze them and determine how you want to treat others in the same way you’d want to be treated.
Great literature can give us a clearer perspective of our own perceptions of life in all its complications. It helps us to see the big picture rather than our own narrow and limited experiences reveal; it helps us to transcend and globalise our concerns. It gives us a chance to learn from the giants of the past and can give us a cautionary warning about the direction our society is taking us.
Literature – all art - focusses a spotlight on an issue. It gives it a center within an aesthetic space, which is then manipulated to bring out the essence; what Hopkins calls “inscape”.
Matthew Arnold claimed that “the study of literature gives you the best vantage point from which to understand an entire society”.
Marshall McLuhan stated that: “the chances of understanding the meaning of our involvement in the present is very small. It is generally the artists who see what they are living in the present and we are always one step ahead (of technology)”.
Aesthetic artefacts can generate insights. Stories, history, art are where we glimpse the meaning of it all.
Immortality of Art #
Quests for immortality recur from the oldest literary sources – The Epic of Gilgamesh. Upon the death of Enkidu. Gilgamesh sends up a great, torn-from-the-gut lament - a dirge - elegy:
“O my friend, wild ass on the run, donkey of the uplands, panther of the wild,” may the Forest of Cedar grieve for you, and the pure Euphrates”.
He calls for his craftsmen—“Forgemaster! [Lapidary!] Coppersmith! Goldsmith!”—and orders Enkidu’s funerary monument:
“Your eyebrows shall be of lapis lazuli, your chest of gold.”
The irony is that the statue has not yet been found, while most of the clay tablets the poem was stamped on has.
Ovid’s Metamorphosis is a ringing affirmation of the power of artists to survive anything that Jove can do to them, culminating in the epic’s final word, vivam, “I shall live”:
Juvenal insisted recorded history or song is more durable than stone. In his Rewards of Fame and Eloquence, writes:
“So much more intense is the thirst for fame than for virtue….
Of a few, by their desire for fame and a title, a name that might
Cling to the stones that guard their ashes, those stones the barren
Fig tree’s malicious strength is capable of shattering, since
Even their very sepulchres are granted a limited span by fate.
John Donne wrote about building “sonnets in little rooms”.
Literature can have more staying power than the grandest monuments made of durable stone.
Robert Browning in The Bishop Orders his Tomb instructs his “nephews” to insure that his mausoleum is grander; with higher quality marble, more expensive stones than any other Bishop’s.
Percy Bysshe Shelley came across a ruined statue of an Egyptian ruler, creating an image of Ozymandian arrogance, together with its “sneer of cold command”, a hollow boastfulness:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'
‘As long as there have been statues, there have been people who destroy statues’
Kenneth Slessor laments the fact that Joe Lynch has no grave with a permanent “funeral-cakes of sweet and sculptured stone.” he has been immortalised in Five Bells. The fact that this poem lives on seventy years later illustrates what Auden said about Yeats;
“the death of the poet was kept from his poems”.
One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil. And why, then, should you not pluck at my laurels? You respect me; but how if one day your respect should tumble?
Take care that a falling statue does not strike you dead! (Nietzsche Quoted by Jung to Freud, 1912)
History and Artists #
Margaret Atwood is conscious now, as it may be she was not twenty years ago, of the infinite slipperiness of historical truth, the flawed and partial and frequently misleading nature of what the world calls “evidence.” One may think that, provided they research soundly, novelists are as qualified as historians to attempt the ascent of the glassy slopes of the past. Or perhaps one could say that they are differently qualified; digging their intuitions into the ice, making footholds for themselves.
We can say, the truth is not single, the truth is plural; but pursue it we must, and pursue it as Atwood does here, with every scrap of ingenuity and energy. For the dead have power, Grace believes, and they don’t like to be laughed at. Alias Grace is, among many other things, a meditation on the responsibility of the artist to the dead, and a reflection on the nature of memory. Perhaps there is no such thing as memory, only the process of remembering. The product of memory is reconstruction, not reproduction. Atwood has seen this, and she has illustrated it most beautifully.
She has asked herself, what do we do when we change a string of events into a story? We make a pattern, and each one of us makes a pattern of our own. We know that two witnesses never have the same version, that when a story is told it is changed by every repetition. You cannot separate the story from the person who is telling it, the person who is hearing it.