The written word in a democratised world


Literature and the individual

The only subject I was really excited by when I went to school four decades ago was Literature, both as a subject and in the form of English lessons. All other subjects felt less important compared to it.

Studying the meaning-creating capacity of language has brought me a lot of joy over the years. It is wonderful to see how intricate ideas are captured, coined and communicated through written words.

What I have to say is very personal; I believe that the biographical resonates with others if expressed honestly. We are not all that different, and we journey the same route – all of us – from cradle to grave. It’s just that we narrate our lives differently.

I shall mention two very essential things I learned in school, taught to me by my English teacher, a Mr Anthony Gomez, at St Xavier’s Institute in Penang. One day, I remember, he took us to the school auditorium at the beginning of English class, sat us down, turned off the lights and played a long piece of classical music for us – some Beethoven creation that would not allow us to doze off. The class was confounded for a while of course, but we sat through it obediently. What I learned from that astounding hour was “Experience comes before Expression”. My class had just had an English lesson – a lesson on learning to express oneself – without words!

The second thing I learned from dear Mr Gomez was this: one day, we went into class, and there on the blackboard was scribbled a poem some of us recognised instantly, because this was 1971 and John Lennon’s album, Imagine, had just come out. It was the lyrics of “Crippled Inside”, one of the songs from the album. We then began to discuss the words, as you would do with any stuffy Shakespearean sonnet in a normal lesson in literature. This had quite an impact on me: “You mean the music I listen to at home with my friends, almost as a protest, as an act of recalcitrance, is legitimate and even acceptable in school?” Suddenly, it felt alright that English was not my mother tongue. Expressing oneself is not a technical matter. It is an art that anyone can perform.

Through these two episodes, I felt that the divide between my secret self and the big bad world began to be bridged. Most authors have a covert love affair with language, I believe, and they are often elated by their ability to give new meaning to old words.

Literature and philosophy

Historically, being literate was the privilege of the upper classes and the priesthood all over the world. Being the tool of power seemed to be the original function of the written word. Universal literacy is a new phenomenon in human history, and it is no coincidence that Chris February 2014 | 39 it is being realised at the same time as democracy spreads throughout the world.

It is also no coincidence that traditional philosophy was dismantled over the last century and was developed into language philosophy. Philosophy has become a study of the workings of normal language and its limits. Many see this as a constraint, but it also means that profound thoughts are no longer sought only in classical philosophical texts, but in literature in general. We now learn to see normal writing – by normal people and not eggheads alone – as a depository of ideas relevant to the common man.

In fact, if we turn the matter around, we should say that the best writing in classical philosophy is actually good literature. And literature is good when it is full of philosophical meaning. What’s more, it is telling that a lot of good philosophy was often presented in dialectical form, from Plato to Confucius and Wittgenstein.

The search for Logic (with a capital L) has been abandoned by most people. This is liberation from the hegemony of the age-old erroneous elitist idea that language is neutral, and that meaning is something external to us.

What results from this is a widened space that allows for creative expressions of individual realities. We are the meaning givers, each one of us.

Today, we may sneer at the standard of writing in social media, blog sites and SMSes, but remember that before these tools came along, most adults did not read at all, let alone write. And our children read and write because they have to, not because these were activities conducive to the development of their minds.

Reading habits are changing as well because of these new technologies. It is something we have to live with, and to an extent, writing is slowly adjusting itself to the shortened attention span we have and the sound bite culture we are living in.

So I am all for bad literature in the early Internet age. It is a stage in the democratisation of literature.

Again, it is no coincidence that changes have come and are coming to Malaysia in a big way at the same time social media and the Internet take over our lives.

Literature and politics

Literature is mainly about the author. It is about the time and the place that he or she lives in. It is about how he or she experiences life, given the society he or she comes from. Just like politics, all literature is local.

But one also has to ascertain when our time is and where our place is. I believe that the long-term effects of colonialism are still with us. Before these effects could be rectified, the long-term effects of excessive nationalism were upon us.

The needs of the colonial economy forced roles onto us, and often as collectives and not as individuals. The nation-building project, which should have dismantled this collectivisation of identities, has instead been making our collective identities stronger than ever, and in a divisive manner.

Collective identities tend therefore to overshadow individual identities, and art, especially Literature, is a countercollectivisation process.

Literature needs a contemplative culture, both to create and to consume. By contemplation, I do not mean detachment from the here and now, though. On the contrary, it is through deep attachment to the here and now that Literature stays most genuine. The individual talks to his place and time. Even the great Shakespeare did not work in a vacuum – he had stimulation from his times and inspiration from the places he lived in, and gained material through listening, talking, reading, writing and living with the people around him.

The individual voice, if honestly expressed, is necessarily a social voice. And a social voice carries political implications. Thus, Literature by its very nature is subversive. But no danger, social living is potentially subversive anyway. There is no escape from that.

In short, what I would like to say is that Literature is not for the fainthearted, but it is for everyone who is literate.

This article is the keynote speech from George Town Literary Festival 2013.

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