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Comparative Literature: Why invest in an education in the Humanities?

S Satish Kumar
Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, University of Georgia

Why invest in an education in the Humanities? What end does it serve? This is a question one finds asked both within and without disciplines in the Humanities. A similar question may be asked of investing in nomenclatures like the Liberal Arts. What comes of it? How does it contribute to economic growth? How does it contribute to “progress”? I have been positioned in a specific location within the Humanities as a student for not very long- eight years is not really a very long span of time if one considers the “larger picture”. I am a student of literature. Recently I’ve been put in positions where I have been called upon to “teach” literature classes. Which is absurd in itself, for is one ever truly and completely equipped to “teach” literature? Is there anybody who can arrogate that they have learned all there is to learn about literature? I ask this question so as not to ask the more naïve question- has anybody read every work of literature that exists in the world? But that would be both absurd and naïve.

To follow a Platonic example, one can arrogate that one has learnt all there is to learn about the art of fashioning a chair out of wood. That is plausible and perhaps even possible. But stating that one has learned all there is to learn about literature or music is absurd and may be even ridiculous. What is then the act of studying and teaching literature or music to be construed as? The blind leading the blind? The four blind men who went to “see” the elephant? Why then they are right! The parent who wishes their children were studying something more “useful” than literature is right in wishing so! The ‘powers that be’ that cut funding from literature and fine arts departments are absolutely justified in doing so! What good can come from an induction into blindness?

I am reminded of Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture that opens with- “Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” In Morrison’s telling of the story the lady was the daughter of slaves, black, American and lived alone in a small house outside town. But, as she explains, it could just as well be anybody else. Some youngsters (one might even call them upstarts) came looking for her to disprove here clairvoyance. The told her they had a bird in their hands and asked her to tell whether the bird was alive or dead. The blind lady stood silent for a long long time. The children, thinking their point proven, have trouble holding their laughter. When the lady replied, she did so in a stern voice and said- “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”

The story for Morrison plays out in a related but slightly different way. What I take away from this story at this moment is the fact of blindness. The study of literature or the fine arts may be an induction into blindness, but it is a specific order of blindness. I cannot arrogate that I know what the study of literature seeks to achieve, but I can say- quoting what Morrison says about language- that “Its force, its felicity lies in its reach toward the ineffable.” She continues- “Word-work is sublime,…, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference- the way in which we are like no other life.” Our horizons are ever-widening. As students of literature, our paradigms of understanding are constantly challenged. We are not blind to difference, in fact, we are almost always constantly aware of it. If we allow it to limit us, our enterprise of reaching toward the ineffable also simultaneously collapses. Our paradigms of apprehension and cognition are constantly challenged and then we are forced to move beyond immediacy of difference. We are forced to look beyond difference. I use the word forced because difference, by virtue of inhabiting the world, constantly stares us in the face- at times it even pokes us in the eye. If people feel that this struggle to look beyond difference is blindness- then the study of literature is an induction into blindness. A blindness I gladly admit I celebrate and revel in!

We live in a world wrought with uncertainty- in a world ravaged daily by violence- in a world that constantly calls even the most basic human judgments into question. It’s been over a century, maybe even more, since absolutes of good and bad ceased to exist. It’s been just about the same since the longing for a utopian past has been established as futile. We as nations, as people and as individuals have been racing towards “progress”. Our notions have now become too mechanical to accommodate the blindness (or more correctly the hypermetropia) of fields like literature. Literature does not build bridges or chairs or build the massive monstrosities that are burning an ever widening hole in the ozone. We are increasingly becoming blind to the ineffable. A master and doyen of Indian Classical Music, with great remorse on the partition of India, had remarked that even if one child in every household were to have been educated in music India would have never been partitioned.

I cannot say we hold the answers to all the ethical problems in the world. I cannot even say that the knowledge of literature is superior to knowing how to build a chair. I can however say that there is nothing wrong in knowing both. In fact I can say that nothing wrong can come from the study of literature. I can say that knowing the differences between use and abuse of language can only help one be more discerning. In the light of recent events, both in the home and the world, one can say with some certainty that discerning is a good thing. I am angry. I am angry all the time, but, to paraphrase Fanon, it is not anger that is a blazing fire. It is more like the white heat from coals when there is no more fire to see. I can say that one should invest in the humanities- in terms of time, resources and endeavor- for what else leads one to a better understanding of that which is human?

I would not arrogate that we have all the answers to all the ethical problems in the world today. But, this I will say, that an education in the Humanities or even the Liberal Arts, if done for the right intents and purposes, which is why one needs to invest in them, will teach one an important fact of what it means to be human. It may not teach you right from wrong. To return to Morrison’s story- it will not tell you whether the bird is dead or alive. It will, however, tell you that the bird is in your hands.

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