Essay Society

Stories set you free: Literature is an antidote to fundamentalism

Open-ended A Kathakali performance of a tale from the Mahabharata.

Open-ended A Kathakali performance of a tale from the Mahabharata. | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH

While thousands of commentaries on the  Quran have been written in the past, contemporary Islamists have hardly engaged with their holy book: “In fact, apart from al-Maududi (d. 1979) and Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), there is hardly any significant work by Islamists in this regard,” note A.S. Sidahmed and A. Ehteshami, the editors of  Islamic Fundamentalism. This is not surprising, and it is not confined to Islam, or even to religions. In fact, it can be argued that fundamentalism — religious, political or economic — is essentially a textual mode. It is a way of reading, to which the antidote is literature.

In different ways, religious, political, economic and other disciplinary texts use language to explain, interpret and codify the complex reality of the world, both as experienced inside our heads and as existing outside our heads. Each religion believes that it has the right understanding of what really exists in and around us, and often justifies this by making the unprovable — and historically easy to disprove — claim that its language is a gift of god or gods. But the stories told by religious or revered texts — whether the  Quran or the  Bible or the  Ramayana — offer many possibilities of interpretation. It is in the nature of language to do that, both because it differs across individuals, time and space, and because language cannot be identical to what exists outside language: reality, in common parlance.

Stories leave gaps

What happens in religions is not different from what happens in literature. At its simplest, stories are told. But the stories do not exhaust the reality they set out to describe, for no language can do so. And the words of the stories leave gaps, which grow or shrink across time and space. The fundamentalist is frightened of this. He — and it is often a man — tries to pin down the meanings of the language of religion, turning stories into weapons to force others to stop thinking differently from him. No wonder, he does not want many commentaries; he insists on one interpretation or, at best, a school of sanctioned interpreters.

“Literature does not give you an easy answer; rather, it forces you to take a stand and find an answer in your space and time”

As I said, this is a matter that runs through religions and one can encounter aspects of it even in a highly diverse and potentially philosophical religion like Hinduism. Noting that the  Mahabharata was written down from oral roots after “dharma had essentially been somewhat codified,” Wendy Doniger comments: “What is dharma? Asked Yudhisthira, and did not stay for an answer. As one of the early dharma texts [ Apastamba Dharma Sutra] puts it, ‘Right and wrong [dharma and adharma] do not go about saying, ‘Here we are’; nor do gods, Gandharvas, or ancestors say, ‘This is right, that is wrong.”’ The  Mahabharata deconstructs dharma, exposing the inevitable chaos of moral life. There is no easy ‘dharma pill’ offered by the stories of the  Mahabharata; they make you think about dharma in all its complexity, reality in its endless forms.

Survival strategy

This is what literature does. Literature does not give you an easy answer; rather, it forces you to take a stand and find an answer in your space and time. It uses words with the knowledge that the silences and gaps in the narrative are important and will need to be excavated for meaning to emerge. It works with contradiction and irony and other such aspects of language-use, which the fundamentalist reading of language will not allow.

But I am not talking about the ambivalence of literature here. In fact, literature is not ambivalent, if that word is taken to mean that it lets us sit comfortably on the fence. It does not. Rather, literature always calls upon the reader to make judgements. Without these judgements, the reader can make sense of neither the language nor the story (including obvious elements like character) nor their complex interrelationship.

But this judgement is not the same as a court judgment, as Martha Nussbaum and Jonathan Culler have noted. It is a judgement that has to be made in every instance of the reading. It is complete in that instance, but calls upon to be made — and sometimes unmade — time and again as the reading proceeds.

I am convinced, after nearly half a decade of struggling with literature and religion, that fundamentalism is essentially a mode of reading, and that literature, if read as literature, equips us to spot the fallacies of this fundamentalist mode, which creates a warped, limited and finally erroneous understanding of the complex reality out there. This happens with religious texts, and also with economic texts (“Capitalism is the only option”) and political ones, as both fascists and Stalinists have shown. This is why I strongly believe that the human ability to read literature as literature — an ability we are losing these days — is essential to the survival of humanity, and of our fragile earth.

The writer is a Denmark-based Indian scholar whose new novel, The Body by the Shore  (HarperCollins), releases soon in India.

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2022 11:09:33 pm |