In the realms of poetry, drama and fiction, the greatest works are selected on the basis of aesthetic excellence or the beauty of expression. Books dealing with other subjects, as History, Biography, Natural Science, Religion, Politics, etc. are considered as literature for their reputation of intellectual eminence combined with aesthetic worth in the form of style, composition and general force of presentation. This is a general definition of literature. When we say that a book is not literature, we generally mean that it has no aesthetic worth; while when we call a book on history, politics, religion etc., as literature, we mean that it has got aesthetic value. This definition excludes from literature scientific types of writing in which the writer uses language for a logical, purely intellectual exposition of matters of fact and generalization from facts. It also excludes utilitarian type of writing in which the writer uses language for furthering his own or other people’s interests in the business of earning a living.
Literature is one of Fine Arts, like Music, Dance, Painting, Sculpture, as it is meant to give aesthetic pleasure rather than serve any utilitarian purpose. It consists of great books which, whatever their subject, are notable for literary form or expression. It is the aesthetic worth alone, or aesthetic worth combined with general intellectual excellence, which entitles a book to be considered as literature.
There are two types of literature—applied literature and pure literature. The two terms can be properly explained by studying Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. The Origin of Species has certainly some literary merit in the form of expressive power, as Darwin has communicated certain information to the reader in an appropriate style. But in this case the expression is not so important as the information. Darwin expressed himself for the purpose of putting his readers in possession of a certain body of information, and thus persuading them of the cogency of a certain line of argument. Even if the expression were clumsy, the information nevertheless might be true and the argument reasonable. The literary quality of the book has served a certain specific purpose, and there are two elements in the book—the merit of Darwin’s purpose, and the merit of expressive power, which are easily distinguishable. But these two elements cannot be distinguished in Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. It gives us no information which may be true or false and no argument which may or may not be cogent. In this case the expression satisfies us simply by existing as expression, and not as a means to an end. Here art does take us beyond the domain of art. This is what is called pure literature. In applied literature we have to ignore the purpose of the writer in order to appreciate its literary value as in the case of Darwin’s The Origin of Species and Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But in pure literature we need not exclude the author’s purpose, because here the writer had no purpose except that the expression should exist for the mere sake of existing itself. Ordinarily when we speak of literature, we refer to pure literature.
Expression thus is the fundamental thing in literature. But what does the author express? It is his experience of life. Now as experience is the substance of literature, everything that can be experienced by man in life for the sake of experience becomes the subject-matter of literature. Thus the scope of literature is illimitable; and wherever there is life, there is the possibility of pure experience, and so of literature. This experience can be intellectual as well as emotional—the main criterion is that it must be satisfying in itself, and not cater for something beyond and outside it. In applied literature the experience of the author has to be excluded or transformed into something pleasant, in order to enjoy it; in pure literature experience is expressed as enjoyable merely by virtue of being expressed.
But the mere expression of experience is not enough; it has to be communicated to the reader. Literature communicates experience. In other words, the experience which lived in the author’s mind must live again in the reader’s mind. The writer has not merely to give to the reader what he has experienced, or how the experience has been taken, but he must give to the reader his own experience, and transplant it from his own mind to the reader’s. In other words, the experience, whole and entire, must be communicated to the reader. This is not easy to attain, as the writer’s experience is his own—a part and parcel of his life. It is the very process of his own life, and by no possibility can it be shared by another person. But the writer can do so by the power of imagination. His experience may be actual or a sort of day-dreaming, but imagination can transform it into something, as a whole, to the reader. By means of his imagination the writer can continue the existence of his experience and communicate it to the reader as if he has recently plucked it out of the flux of life.
In order to achieve this the writer must arouse the same imagination in his reader, and control it in such a manner that the reader may also imitate that experience. This he achieves by means of words which should act as symbols of his experience, so that it can be properly represented to the reader. The writer must translate his experience in such symbolic equivalence of language, that the symbol may be translated back again by the reader’s imagination into a similar experience. It is here that the skill of the artist lies; and his highest artistic power is called into play, because the medium of language at his disposal is limited, while there is no limit to the possibility of imaginative experience. His language must not only express his experience, but also represent the same experience to the reader. The writer has to rely on his reader’s ability to respond to what his language can only suggest, and for this he must have the sense of language. In fact, it is this sense of language which distinguishes a literary artist from his fellows.