What is the nature of literature?
I would be extremely surprised if there was one definitive answer to this question. Be ready to sift through multiple responses. For my bet, I would say that literature's nature has to address the paradigm put forth by Tolstoy, who argued that science, as a branch of study, is meaningless because it cannot answer the two fundamental questions of all consciousness: Who are we as human beings and what shall we do? In my mind, these two questions help to bring out the essential nature of literature, a field whose endeavors are specifically driven to explore how specific conflicts or literary examinations have relevance to the reader and the world in general. Literature's purpose, in my mind, is to answer the two questions put forth by Tolstoy. While it might not provide definitive enough answers at times, I believe that the nature of literature is to explore these questions, probing their value and through this discussion or journey, meaning is revealed with specific answers being secondary.
In general, I would say literature:
- mirrors reality: it reflects the eternal, the human condition, the myth, romance, comedy, and tragedy that appeal to audiences across time and place
- uses authorial control to achieve an end, theme, or enlightenment
- uses elevated language to draw attention to itself
- its authors are morally and ethically trustworthy
- its authors and characters are better than us: they are artistically drawn from humanity, but they stand out in terms of their own passion, logic, or ethics.
- uses metaphor and irony (or similar figurative language) to draw analogies or dichotomies between ideas and characters.
The written word can evoke a whole range of emotions within us. It can incite fear, cause joy, or outrage even the most even-tempered among us, and it can remind us of our short time on this planet. Literature serves many different purposes, but there is always intent in authorship - even fiction often has a purpose aside from entertainment. All literature reflects the society it is produced in and a society's values can be deciphered from their literature.
Writers in the transcendentalist movement respected and valued nature in their personal lives, and this respect is visible in their writing. Authors such as Thoreau and Emerson wrote of nature's beauty having intrinsic value. The earth was not merely a tool for humans in their eyes, but rather they were a small part of all that constitutes nature.
What has happened to writers like Thoreau? Are people still reading about the value of nature? Today we are faced with many problems concerning the environment: global warming, habitat destruction, water pollution, air pollution, and species extinction all threaten the Earth. When Thoreau was writing in the mid 19th century, the natural world was not threatened as it is now.
Even in 1855, when Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass, he understood the impact that human beings have on the natural world. He acknowledged that humans are not separate, but rather, an essential part of nature. It appears that in order to solve any of our current environmental problems we will have to think like this again. We must consider ourselves part of nature, part of the problem, in order to find solutions.
There have been few contemporary writers to understand this notion. One notable exception from the 20th century who understood what our relationship with nature must be was Rachel Carson. In her book Silent Spring, Carson detailed the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment. The book created widespread concern and facilitated the ban of the pesticide DDT despite the opposition it faced from the chemical industry and the Agriculture Department. The industry, and all its power, was not enough to keep the general public from growing concerned. Literature had a major impact on the environment.
Literature today has the same potential to inspire change, call to action, and raise awareness as Rachel Carson did in 1962. It seems however, that the general public is not as receptive as they once were. Mainstream Americans do not read like they used to. Instead we go to the movies, and even then only when they entertain us. Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth received high praises from both the film industry and scientists, but it has yet to make the kind of impact that Carson's book did just 44 years previous.
Literature is a widely accessible and easy way to inform others and begin to address the situations we must deal with in the future. Media today has the power to change the world, so we must be conscious of what we read and believe. The environmental problems that face our world today are not for the scientists alone to sort out. Writers, singers, teachers, and people from all professions alike are equally impacted and equally responsible for taking care of our planet.