HISTORY is important…very important. There is no doubt about that. But Literature is sweet. You can call this an obsession; and you will not be very far from the truth.
Literature is not only a study or appreciation of written work. It is also not only communication between the reader and writer. It is an exploration of real life. Another way of putting it across is …Literature examines the tidings of today, not of yesterday.
What induces literary mouth-watering is how Literature quietly speaks to the actors on the proverbial stage as much as it speaks to the audiences observing the drama of life or indeed the readers of a story.
Please read “Julius Caesar” again. It was written more than 400 years ago. Yet you will marvel at Shakespeare’s penetrating accuracy and prophetic vision. The same with “Macbeth” and “Animal Farm”. All of them explore real life with a vivid reminder of the world unfolding in front of you in a play of words. All of them and many more titles (these are only illustrations of the best there is on the literary menu) do not develop intellectual tricks. They develop real powers of imagination, observation, reflection and intelligent judgment all which are absolutely part of any genuine educational process. That is what the new curriculum aims to do.
When the updated curriculum speaks about development of critical thinking, it speaks about how, for example, Literature makes every intelligent student know how he or she or everyone for that matter, fits into the general scheme of real life.
Drama, poetry, the novel and the short story all are works of imaginary craftsmanship or capacity for invention. They rise above simple entertainment and bring us to the hard realities of human situations, problems, feelings and relationships: the dilemmas in human life, the anxieties, fears and expectations of people, their cries, questions, worries and concerns.
Shelley once wrote: “Writers are unacknowledged legislators of the world.” How true that is! The vital part played by writers … good writers, inspired writers, cannot be underestimated. It was H.L.B. Moody who said, “… all of us who read works of literature will find our knowledge of human affairs broadened and deepened, whether in the individual, the social, the racial or the international sphere; we shall understand the possibilities of human life, both for good and evil; we shall understand how we came to live at a particular time and space, with all its pleasures and vexations and problems; we shall understand the ways onwards which are open to us, and we shall be able to make right rather than wrong choices.” Brief but pregnant; straight and to the point!
We must never underestimate the element of pleasure and enjoyment which comes from the reading of literature, certainly in itself one of the great advantages which comes with being an educated person. But as Moody says, over and above pleasure and enjoyment of literature we must “recognise that certain other fundamental skills and capacities are developed through the reading of literature, which are important to us as educated people, not only in our private pleasures or our personal philosophies, but in our day-to-day exercise of the responsibilities which come to us in the modern world as a result of the educational qualifications we obtain.” These skills, I always say, include ability to observe, to imagine, discriminate, to reflect and judge (judgment referring to capacity to make intelligent, wise, correct decision).
In simple language, to imagine or think that literature is about simple stories of drama or the novel intended to tell a simple story to keep people entertained is to lose the whole essence of the intellectual richness of literature embedded in its literary complexity.
There is no doubt that English language having been in use for more than 600 years with its resources going through various world cultures, the experiments and victories of heroic individual writers, new social and scientific evolutions and revolutions, makes Literature exceptionally complex indeed. This is what I call the sweetness of literature.
In “Julius Caesar”, the king of the Roman Empire, at the time, is conspired against by his closest allies and friends Casca and Cassius and who feel he is becoming a political demigod too big for his boots and ruling with a heavy hand. They mobilise the plebeians (ordinary simple people) and assassinate him. The reason being a brutal dictatorial leadership style! The plebeians by their nature of mob psychology and being carried by directionless winds of excitement rally around the plotters and Caesar is killed. Ordinary people, Shakespeare called them plebeians, are notable for boisterous merriment or excitement about nothing … sometimes even about self destruction.
Notable amongst the crowd that killed the king is Caesar’s best friend, a nobleman of Rome, Brutus, who holds the sword that inflicts the killer stab. To his shock Caesar dies with a famous clause in Shakespearean drama and world literature “Et tu Brute!” Latin to mean “And you too Brutus (you are here???)” Indeed, best friends, our sweethearts in this life, sometimes deliver the most painful blow in the worst dramatic ironies of life. It is a play when you study it, entertainment when you read it; but none of it is funny or fun; and of course none of it is a play when it is happening to you in real life.
Caesar’s right hand man and warmest friend, Mark Anthony a great speaker and orator comes to bury his friend but must make sure he doesn’t offend or trigger the anger of Caesar’s assassins . So he takes advantage of the plebeians’ simplicity of mind, (un-educatedness or foolishness, if you like) and addresses them in a language too equivocal and complex for them to follow or understand.
‘I come to bury Caesar but not to praise him / The evil that men do lives after them/ The good is interred with their bones …’
But as simple “fools”, they cheer him up and salute him.
In “Macbeth” the play, Lady Macbeth, the hard-hearted, hard-talking, pushy first lady, fans her husband’s ambition to become king and ends up the more dangerous snake in the grass, scheming and plotting the murder of King Duncan whom she wants dead yesterday but cannot practically kill herself. So she sweet-talks her husband, literally henpecks, using pleas, scorn and mortification, praise and blame, all words and tactics a woman can use to bend a loving man into submission. Women do this better than men. Finally, Macbeth murders King Duncan, an action which almost instantly comes back to haunt both husband and wife when all the support almost instantly disappears. The bodyguards abandon him, all the noblemen desert him and he remains cornered in a political quagmire too hot to contemplate.
“They have tied me to a stake / I cannot fly, / But, bear-like, I must fight the course …’ (Act V Scene 7)
When Macbeth finds himself cornered and almost under house arrest, everything around him rapidly turning bad in his face, the commando that guarded him has turned against him, his friends have deserted him and his foul-mouthed wife and source of strength has apparently committed suicide, he cries, “She should have died hereafter / There would have been a time for such a word . . . all our yesterdays have lifted fools / The way to dusty death . . . ? Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player /That struts and frets upon stage . . . And then is heard no more / It is a tale, / Told by an idiot full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing.”
Macbeth, the dictator, the brutal murderer and heartless villain breaks into an oddly muted speech segueing quickly into a speech of horrific despair and pessimism meaning ‘there is no meaning or purpose in life. The queen-today referred to as a first lady, is completely shattered, undone by guilt and she descends into madness before committing suicide. But she was the driving force behind their plot and scheme to kill Duncan.
The pair, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, in their destructive power, now gone, have created their own hell, tormented by guilt, shame and insanity. That is Shakespeare for you; more than 400 years ago.
In “Animal Farm”, by George Orwell, Old Major dies after prophesying victory for the animals against human beings on Manor Farm. Animal Farm emerges to replace Manor Farm through a bitter armed struggle in which many animals died and some of them emerged heroes. The animals seemingly celebrate independence from human beings in sweet unity. They organise themselves into a sovereign government led by pigs under the banners of Snowball and Napoleon. The animal government immediately shows absolute power in the hands of the pigs. The political honeymoon does not last long. Soon Snowball and Napoleon are at each other’s throat until Snowball is booted out of political power and glory. Napoleon rules, seemingly, with a dictatorial hand until all animals who expressed dissention one way or the other were executed both privately and publicly. Benjamin the donkey saw every trick, lie and inch of oppression by his own but kept quiet and at a distance. The hardest working, most faithful and loyal animal, a bundle of energy and resolve, Boxer, ended up dead and his meat sold to human beings for their dogs to feast on.
At the end of “Animal Farm”, there was visible trade with the human beings whom they had defeated in armed struggle. The pigs ate all the farm fruit alone and drank all the cows’ milk alone and slept on beds, all which they had initially agreed and constituted to be against the spirit of Animalism. They (the ruling pigs) slept all day, eating the best food while the rest almost died from famine. They claimed they needed this comfort because they were planners and intellectual master-minders of peace and prosperity on Animal Farm.
As the small book with a big story ends, the animals are disillusioned with their own leaders though they are not intelligent enough to see exactly what is going on. They gradually grow restless and seem to think life was better under human beings as it was more painful to be oppressed by their own.
As the “Animal Farm” story ends, there is a feeling there could be another revolution leading to a new order likely to be working closely with human beings.
The little book is angry, straight and to the point and spares nothing and no one who exploits another. It tells a simple story telling another complex story underneath it and offers a perfect platform for the development of a critical mind that critically analyses real life.
It is my submission that if more literature were offered and seriously studied in schools, the curriculum demand of developing critical thinking in the minds of learners would not be put to waste. We would produce genuine thinkers and better decision-makers upon every aspect of their lives. Literature is sweet, sweeter than history.