An Essay I wrote for my Honors World Lit/Comp class. Prompt: Why do we study literature?
| Everyone fears something- spiders, needles, heights. However, there is one fear that haunts all mankind- the fear of dying. Especially with the advanced weapons of mass destruction available today, we know that there is always a chance that we could die. Studying literature provides a shelter, a respite, from our fear. The invented worlds and tapestries woven from imagination allow us to escape from the awful future of destruction that may come to pass. Not only does literature hide us from our worries, it also teaches us alternatives to the meaningless devastation we dread. It teaches us the basic values we should focus on instead and the morals that have essentially been lost. We are also taught the consequences of the decisions that lead to the possibilities we anticipate. Good authors strive to inform us of how our own decisions have led up to our current predicament and teach us to make the decisions that would return us to a calmer state. These are the primary reasons we study literature.
In 1949, soon after World War II had ended, William Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In his acceptance speech, he spoke about the fear people have of dying.
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? (Faulkner 1).Faulkner notes that we are all terrified of dying in a war, in a terrorist attack, or in a natural disaster. Our great fear is being blown up, being destroyed, being wiped from existence. We have no time for thinking of our morals and the consequences of our decisions that could ultimately lead to the thing we are most frightened of. However, when we study literature, with its wonderful worlds, we are granted an escape from this dark cloud.
The basest of all things is to be afraid, and, teaching [ourselves] that, [we must] forget it forever, leaving no room … for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed-love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice (Faulkner 1).When we read the sorts of writing that will encourage the values Faulkner lists, we too leave no room for fear in our minds.
If we focus on our decisions and their consequences, as much of literature teaches, we might drop our endless worry for our mortal lives. During the Cold War, in 1962, John Steinbeck was awarded the literature Nobel Prize. He, like Faulkner, spoke of the constant fear for our lives. Of course, this was during a time when worldwide destruction was looming over people. The existence of such destructive weapons as nuclear bombs provided great power to those who had them- as well as creating great terror. In his speech, he pointed out that we could, instead of constantly dreading being destroyed, focus on our great abilities, grow our confidence, and escape from our fear through literature.
The writer [should] celebrate man's [and woman's] proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit – for gallantry in defeat – for courage, compassion, and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally-flags of hope and emulation (Steinbeck 1).Though Steinbeck was directing his remarks towards the authors of great literature, they apply to any person who studies literature. We should seek the evidence in literature of our inner strength of heart and spirit- despite any physical weaknesses we may have- in order to give us bravery in the presence of such intimidating prospects as death. Faulkner points out another important point when he said, “Man will not merely endure... he is immortal, not because he has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance” (Faulkner 2). Our souls are immortal, our ability to love and to be strong of heart and courageous lasts forever, especially when we share it through literature. This is a great comfort to all who believe it; when they are afraid for their life and family, scared of never seeing a dear friend again, or worried about all the things they will miss because you only live once. However, this is not true, because our spirits live on forever.
Though we can forget our fear and remind ourselves of our inner strength, that does not truly end the possibility of dying. It only creates mental peace. However, our decisions have consequences and if we carefully make our choices with the consequences in mind, we can prevent the disasters in store. “The present universal fear has been the result of a forward surge in our knowledge and manipulation of certain dangerous factors in the physical world” (Steinbeck 2). Though we have done our best to control many dangers, such as natural disasters and enemy attacks, we have also created more dangers in them. By making better weapons to defend against the greater enemy weapons, we encourage higher degrees of warfare. By creating easier ways to mine and demolish old structures, such as Nobel's invention of Dynamite, we also create new dangers. “Nobel saw some of the cruel and bloody misuses of his inventions. He may even have foreseen the end result of his probing – access to ultimate violence – to final destruction.” (Steinbeck 2) He may have considered the consequences, but his invention still lead to the violent use of explosives. When someone picks up a stick, they pick up both ends. If the stick turns out to be a rattlesnake, they also pick up the head with its poisonous fangs. It is the same with our choices- when we make them, we pick up the other end- the consequences.
Can a bunch of words on paper really change the world that much? Absolutely. Some may feel as though studying literature is a burden placed on them by their incredibly unfair teachers, it is much more than that. When we study great writings, with qualities such as the ones Faulkner and Steinbeck listed, with an earnest wish to gain something from it, we will stave off our fears. We will gain confidence in our inner strength. We will learn to keep the things we dread from happening and avoid losing the people we love. We will gain confidence in the immortality of women and men. Like Faulkner and Steinbeck suggest, we can put an end to the fear distracting us from our true potential and improve the world rather than allowing the consequences of our unchecked choices to lead the world to its doom.
“John Steinbeck – Banquet Speech”. Nobelprize.org. 6 Sep 2011 http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1962/steinbeck-speec...
“William Faulkner – Banquet Speech”. Nobelprize.org. 6 Sep 2011 http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1949/faulkner-speech...