The nature and essence of literature

The nature and essence of literature
The nature and essence of literature


Definition: What is literature? Why do we read it? Why is literature important? Literature is a term used to describe written or spoken material. Broadly speaking, “literature” is used to describe anything from creative writing to more technical or scientific works, but the term is most commonly used to refer to works of the creative imagination, including works of poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction. Why do we read literature? Literature represents a language or a people: culture and tradition.

But, literature is more important than just a historical or cultural artifact. Literature introduces us to new worlds of experience. We learn about books and literature; we enjoy the comedies and the tragedies of poems, stories, and plays; and we may even grow and evolve through our literary journey with books.

Ultimately, we may discover meaning in literature by looking at what the author says and how he/she says it. We may interpret the author’s message. In academic circles, this decoding of the text is often carried out through the use of literary theory, using a mythological, sociological, psychological, historical, or other approach.

Whatever critical paradigm we use to discuss and analyze literature, there is still an artistic quality to the works. Literature is important to us because it speaks to us, it is universal, and it affects us. Even when it is ugly, literature is beautiful.


The first problem to confront us is, obviously, the subject matter of literary scholarship. What is literature? What is not literature? What is the nature of literature? Simple as such questions sound, they are rarely answered clearly. One way is to define “literature” as everything in print. We then shall be able to study the “medical profession in the fourteenth century” or “planetary motion in the early Middle Ages” or “witchcraft in Old and New England”.

As Edwin Greenlaw has argued, “Nothing related to the history of civilization is beyond our province”; we are “not limited to belles-lettres or even to printed or manuscript records in our effort to understand a period or civilization”, and we “must see our work in the light of its possible contribution to the history of culture”.

According to Greenlaw’s theory, and the practice of many scholars, literary study has thus become not merely closely related to the history of civilization but indeed identical with it. Such study is literary only in the sense that it is occupied with printed or written matter, necessarily the primary source of most history. It can, of course, be argued in defence of such a view that historians neglect these problems, that they are too much preoccupied with diplomatic, military, and economic history, and that thus the literary scholar is justified in invading and taking over a neighbouring terrain.

Doubtless nobody should be forbidden to enter any area he likes, and doubtless there is much to be said in favour of cultivating the history of civilization in the broadest terms…

As for the functions of literature, for the time being just think to these two concepts, “art for art’s sake” and “art for progress”. “Art for art’s sake” is the usual English rendering of a French slogan from the early 19th century, “l’art pour l’art”, and expresses a philosophy that the intrinsic value of art, and the only “true” art, is divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function.

Such works are sometimes described as “autotelic”, from the Greek autoteles, “complete in itself”, a concept that has been expanded to embrace “inner-directed” or “self-motivated” human beings. A Latin version of this phrase, “Ars gratia artis”, is used as a motto by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and appears in the circle around the roaring head of Leo the Lion in its motion picture logo. “L’art pour l’art” (translated as “art for art’s sake”) is credited to Théophile Gautier (1811–1872), who was the first to adopt the phrase as a slogan.

Gautier was not, however, the first to write those words: they appear in the works of Victor Cousin,[1] Benjamin Constant, and Edgar Allan Poe. For example, Poe argues in his essay “The Poetic Principle” (1850), that “We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem’s sake […] and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force: – but the simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem’s sake”. “Art for art’s sake” was a bohemian creed in the nineteenth century, a slogan raised in defiance of those who — from John Ruskin to the much later Communist advocates of socialist realism — thought that the value of art was to serve some moral or didactic purpose. “Art for art’s sake” affirmed that art was valuable as art, that artistic pursuits were their own justification and that art did not need moral justification — and indeed, was allowed to be morally neutral or subversive…

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