A section of the iconic original cover of The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Literature: The Fall of the Necessary

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Is there anything more beautiful than the written word and the spoken tongue? Language is one of the great miracles of humanity. It’s the ever-growing culmination of thousands of years of history, and the facilitator of juggling abstract thoughts and strictly defined ideals. From language comes the way to express formal logic, a way to express emotion, desire. And from language comes translation, interpretation, analysis and this post. Singapore’s four official languages come from four different language families, and despite the vast difference in the number of speakers of each language, all tongues are celebrated and cross-translated.

But, for some reason, people aren’t as interested in literature anymore.

Literature (n.) Written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.

(from the Oxford Living Dictionary)

The number of students doing literature as a subject in school has been decreasing and the Singapore literature community is a vibrant community but also a sadly underground one. The average person cares not for Ethos Books or the works of Cyril Wong. The average person cares not for Shakespeare and Austen and Fitzgerald and Camus. Perhaps most painfully of all, the average Singaporean doesn’t have the patience or ability to appreciate poetry.

Why is this so? And how can we turn this around?

The first reason would be the problems inherent in Literature. Literature is an art form that works on two levels. From the initial read, the reader appreciates the rhythm or feeling or its quality of mellifluousness. Further casual readings or post-reading analysis will reveal the second level of modus operandi: the technicalities of the art form. Literature consists of devices, each device with a specific purpose when put in its various texts and contexts. This is where meaning and understanding comes together with feel and rhythm, and the final extent of appreciation is phenomenal and possibly even life-changing. This multi-dimensional approach to assaulting both the conscious and subconscious, both the advanced and primal parts of our mind, takes a longer time to take effect. While many novels, due to their size and language, can have a lasting impact based on the first level along, other forms of literature, such as poetry, suffer incredibly. As a friend of mine put it, “[poetry is just] cryptic bullshit”.

Singaporeans don’t have the patience and/or time to fully appreciate works of literature. Wouldn’t it be great if the community grew and inducted new members regularly? People will enjoy your passion first, and then they’ll enjoy your craft.

I would argue that the second reason would be the education system. Literature is oftentimes considered to be confined to ages old texts that will have no bearing on anyone’s life in the modern world. Students learn literature with this mentality, and when faced with other subjects that have tangible real-world applications, who would go for an impractical subject that foolishly embraces the past? The problem with this disposition is that it is completely unrealistic. Literature and its impacts are all around us. Whether it’s your boss giving an effective presentation, your friend reading a self-help book or your favorite artist writing an epic rock opera, the world will constantly try to remind us that the power of the written word is everpresent. My inner voice told me, “Why stop at those three examples?” How about writing that love poem for who you think may be the One? How about conveying that ultra-complex feeling that you otherwise cannot convey? How about understanding more about the human mind and the very human search for meaning? Literature helps foster an appreciation of life and all its wonders. If the pedagogy of literature included teaching its effect and usefulness, then maybe people would be more interested. Heck, even giving the context of each text would show how different cultures and peoples and social situations impact what kind of text gets written.

The one who has power over the word has power over thoughts and ideas. Our intellectual development as a species is dependent so much on language as much now as it was back when the first whole word was uttered. With literature comes a deeper understanding of what it means to be alive, whether it be the Absurdist ideas of Camus or the helpless game of the gods of the Greek epics. And who wouldn’t want their life to have meaning? (Or be satisfied with its lack of meaning.)

I am a poet, and a writer, and I shall wave the inked paper flag high.