What is Literature? Definition & Explanation

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      Literature stands inclusively defined when we define all Arts as inodes of ‘imitation’, i.e. an imaginative representation of life or reality. Let us, however, look at some of the specific definitions of literature and try to understand some of its distinguishing criteria.

      One way to define literature is to include everything in print (except, of course, railway guides and directories) - when it becomes synonymous with the history of civilization (Greenlaw - cited by Warren and Wellek); another is to limit it to great books; but it seems best to understand by it only imaginative writing (Warren and Wellek).

      De Quincey divided literature into Literature of Knowledge and Literature of Power. It is only the latter kind, however, which falls under our consideration. The end of the first kind is, as De Quincey says, to impart knowledge or information; while that of the latter is to move us. The first appeals to the discursive understanding; the second to the higher understanding, or imagination. The two kinds may sometimes blend, as when Paradise Lost conveys information about theology or points a great moral or philosophical truth; and when Darwin’s Origin of Species or Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire achieves some literary excellence. (In this sense Plato’s Dialogues is still more literary; it is in some parts even poetic).

      Literature, then, we may consider to be composed of those works in which the imaginative element is predominant. We may, however, concede the term also to such works as are distinguished by their style or possess some literary grace — works which primarily have a non-aesthetic function but combine some aesthetic appeal, too (such as a historical work or a scientific treatise or philosophical dissertation).

      ‘Inventiveness’ or imaginativeness, then, is what constitutes the ideal scientific language is purely “denotative” and unambiguous, while in literature words mean much more than meets the ear. Words are used in their connotative and rhythmical as well as denotative aspects. “Literature is an exploitation of language”; it is “words working hard”, says J. B. Wilson (English Literature: Introductory Chapter). Of course every art makes a point of exploiting the resources of its appropriate medium to the fullest. And if literature too does the same, it is no wonder. But this maximum utilization of the resources of language is more evident in poetry (that concentrated essence of literature) than in other forms of literature. The novelist and the dramatist seek to render their vision of life chiefly through plot and character (of course even plot and character ultimately boil down to words on the printed page, unless we remind ourselves that a play is a ‘stagey” affair too.)

      Words are the means through which the poet creates his pictures, and it is through their suggestive power again that he makes the whole world kin as well as connects in imagination divided and separated worlds. He also reveals things in fresh and large and intimate relations, and this by means of words that are winged as well as emotively charged. They are like rockets that explode in the air and scatter sparks of different colors in all directions. It is this potent means that the poet relies upon for creating his special effects. The novelist makes a more or less explicatory use of language. The dramatist comes nearer to the poet than the novelist, in his economical use of language. He has to create a living character and initiate action within a few words, or he fails. He must compress as much of character into words (as does the poet his meaning) as they can hold. (Sometimes the compression is too great and leads to obscurity in poetry, this ‘obscurity’ being due in part also to the multi­level operation of meaning, the recondite sources of association tapped and the complexity of the response evoked.) The novelist is under no such inexorable necessity. To sum up, the art of letters may be said to consist in the recording of life’s experiences in a language that has the potency to recreate the original experience for the author as well as the reader. Much controversy centers around this point. First, as the expressionists believe, no elaborate expression is necessary so far as the artist is concerned; only a few scrawls or suggestive key phrases would do. From the reader’s end, critics like H. Read and Warren and Wellek argue that it is only ‘understanding’ that is transmitted and not the feeling which the author experienced at the moment of creation (this feeling being a recollected one): the reader’s is a reaction of admiration, repose, emotional stasis.

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