Relation of Literature to Life

There is an intimate connection between literature and life. It is, in fact, life which is the subject matter of literature. Life provides the raw material on which literature imposes an artistic form. Literature, as we defined in the previous section, is the communication of the writer’s experience of life. But this connection between literature and life is not so simple as it seems. This problem has been discussed by some of the greatest literary critics of the world, and their conclusions have been sometimes contradictory.

Plato, the great Greek philosopher, was the first to give a serious thought to this problem—the relation of literature to life. In his discussions he referred mainly to poetry, but what he said about poetry can be equally applied to literature as a whole. He regarded poetry as a mere ‘imitation’ of life, and thus he condemned the poets. His opposition to poetry was based on his theory of knowledge. According to him, true reality consists in the ideas of things, of which individual objects are but reflections or imitations. For example, when we say a black dog, a good dog, a lame dog etc., we are comparing the dog which we actually see with the ideal dog, our idea of the dog, which is the true, unchanging reality, while the dogs which we name as black, good, lame etc. are mere reflections and imitations of that reality. Thus the poet, who imitates those objects which are themselves imitations of reality, is obviously producing something, which is still further removed from ultimate reality. Plato developed this argument first with reference to the painter. Painting is an imitation of a specific object or group of objects, and if it is nothing but that, if reality lies not in apprehending reality, the painter is not doing anything particularly valuable. Just as the painter only imitates what he sees and does not know how to make or to use what he sees (he could paint a bed, but not make it), so the poet imitates reality without necessarily understanding it. Poetry or literature as a whole is an imitation of imitation and thus twice removed from truth.
There is an obvious error in Plato’s reasoning. Being too much of a philosopher and moralist, he could not see clearly the relation between literature and life. He is right when he says that the poet produces something which is less than reality it purports to represent, but he does not perceive that he also creates something more than reality. This error was corrected by Plato’s pupil, Aristotle. In Poetics he undertook to examine the nature and qualities of imaginative literature with a view to demonstrating that it is true, and not false as Plato had shown it. He agreed with Plato that poetry is an imitation of reality, but according to him, this imitation is the objective representation of life in literature or, in other words, the imaginative reconstruction of life. Poetry is thus not connected with the outside world in the simple and direct fashion supposed by Plato. The poet first derives an inspiration from the world by the power of his imagination; the art of poetry then imitates this imaginative inspiration in language. The art of poetry or literature as a whole exists to give shape and substance to a certain kind of imaginative impulse; the existence of the art implies the existence of the impulse. Now it is just possible to imagine life exactly as it is; but the exciting thing is to imagine life as it might be, and it is then that imagination becomes an impulse capable of inspiring poetry. This is true even in the case of what we call realism in literature; it is true even when the life imagined was originally an actuality of some highly exciting nature in itself. Imagination may no more than concentrate the actuality, by dropping out all its insignificant passages. But that will be enough to make the resultant poetry, or literature, something different from the copy of the world which Plato’s condemnation assumed it to be. This was Aristotle’s reply to Plato. Art or literature is not a slavish imitation of reality twice removed from truth. Presenting as it must do individual men or women in the trappings and circumstances of life, it does not leave them there, but pierces to what is significant in action and character, expressing through their words and action that is true for all human nature—the poet’s truth, the universal truth. The poet is concerned with truth—but not the truth of the annalist, the historian, or the photographer. The poet’s business is not to write of events that have happened, but of what may happen, of things that are possible in the light of probability or necessity. For this reason poetry is a more philosophical, a more serious thing than history. For whilst history deals with the particular only—this event or that event—poetry deals with the universal. The poet selects from life according to the principle of poetic unity and poetic truth. He seeks to draw out what is relevant and representative, and to present it harmoniously, in a self-contained situation. The truth with which he deals is not that which the anatomist may lay bare on the dissecting-table, but that which a poet divines and translates.
Aristotle, thus, met Plato’s charge that poetry is imitation of an imitation by showing that the poet,  by concerning himself with fundamental probabilities rather with casual actualities, reaches more deeply into reality than the annalist or historian. Sir Philip Sidney, who next took up the question of the relation of literature to life also refuted Plato’s contention that literature is a mere imitation of an imitation. According to him, the poet does not imitate, but creates; it is the reader who imitates what the poet creates. Taking his material from the actual world, the poet creates an ideal world by means of his imagination. For Sidney the ideal world of the poet is of value because it is a better world than the real world and it is presented in such a way that the reader is stimulated to try and imitate it in his own practice.
The problem of literature’s relation to life was next taken up by Dryden who pointed out that imaginative literature gives us a ‘just and lively’ image of human nature by representing its ‘passions and humours’. This point was further developed by Dr. Johnson who expressed the view that the poet ‘holds up a mirror to nature”. According to him, “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representation of general nature.” The way to please the greatest number over the longest period of time, which is the duty of imaginative literature, is to provide accurate pictures of nature. Explaining his view that the poet is the illuminator of human nature Dr. Johnson wrote:
“The business of the poet is to examine, not the individual, but the species… He must exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features as recall the original to every mind, and must neglect the minute discriminations, which one may have remarked and another have neglected, for those characteristics which are alike obvious to vigilance and carelessness.
“But the knowledge of nature is only half the task of a poet; he must be acquainted likewise with all the modes of life. His character requires that he estimates the happiness and misery of every condition, observe the power of all the passions in all their combinations, and trace the changes of the human mind, as they are modified by various institutions and accidental influences of climate or custom, from the sprightliness of fancy to the despondence of decrepitude. He must divert himself of the prejudices of his age or country; he must consider right and wrong in their abstracted and variable state; he must regard present laws and their opinions and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will always, be the same. He must, therefore, content himself with the slow progress of his name, condemn the applause of his own time, and commit his claims to the justice of posterity. He must write as the interpretator of nature and the legislator of mankind and consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations, as being superior to time and place.”
According to Dr. Johnson, the poet must know the manners and customs of men of all times and conditions, not because it is his duty to make vivid to the reader the different ways in which men hove lived and behaved, but so that he is not taken in by surface differences and is able to penetrate to the common humanity underlying there.
Walter Pater, a critic of the later nineteenth century, who discussed the relation of literature and life in detail, remarked in his essay on “Style”: “Just as in proportion as the writer’s aim, consciously or unconsciously, comes to be the transcribing, not of the world, not of mere fact, but his sense of it, he becomes an artist, his work fine art; and good art in proportion to the truth of his presentment of that sense.”
Thus, according to Pater, the literary artist does not give us a photographic ‘imitation’ of reality, but a transcription of his vision of it. It is from reality or life from which the artist starts, but he tries to reconstruct it when he would ‘see it steadily and see it whole’.
Taking into consideration the views of Plato, Aristotle, Sidney, Dryden, Johnson and Pater, we conclude that the notion that literature is not concerned with real life is wrong. All great pieces of literature are ‘true to life’. But the literary artist is not content to ‘hold the mirror upto nature’, because his business, as Matthew Arnold has pointed out, is a ‘criticism, of life’. He concentrates on those characteristics and aspects of life which are permanent, but which might easily pass unobserved. He clutches at anything which promises some permanence among what is always fleeting. That is why he gives us a picture of reality which is more characteristic of life than anything which we discover by our own day-to-day observation. The images which we are creating by our own observation of life at every moment of our working experience are hazy, half-finished and unrelated. It is the literary artist who finishes them, makes them clear and puts them in their wider setting, and to that extent makes life less obscure, because he knows more about life than anyone can know without regarding life with his eyes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s