As a mindless classroom routine in Kashmir, students are often taught the outdated concepts which affect their aptitude, attitude as well as altitude in life. Here, an English Literature student recounts her tryst with the absurd history lessons on English Literature having least relevance in the contemporary times.
By Hirra Sultan
I’ve always loved books. The way authors talk about things, people and situation and take you to some world of wonder. Somewhere far from reality and everything that is annoying you in this moment. Just some words and everything changes.
This love for literature, plays, and books took me to the path of English Literature. If reading randomly is so much joy, how better it would be to know this field and everything it carries. And how it would expose me to books and concepts I might not otherwise choose or come across.
But the vastness and diversity of literature cannot be assessed by standing on the banks. One has to dive in. And so I did.
I expected a journey and understanding of the world through literature. From the eyes of a reader. And somehow it’s disappointing. It’s not what I thought it would be. I still learn something new and talk about things I had no idea of earlier, yet I remain unsatisfied.
So, when we read the history of English language, it’s divided into 3 major phases—old, medieval and modern. Although we’re currently living in postmodern era of English Literature, yet, all I read is Chaucer.
For those who don’t know Chaucer or are coming across this name for the first time, he’s treated as the Father of English Literature and hence deserves a place in every Literature student’s mind.
The only thing is, when we study his work, his poetry, it’s already 6 centuries old! The original text is unintelligible to us and we’ve to go for some study notes and translations to understand any of it. His most famous work is The Canterbury Tales, a portrait of 14th Century English Society.
Reading his poetry and stories does not give a student any real benefit unless he’s a history student in search for patterns of English Society. For someone who wants to be a poet or an author, how does reading his poems help?
The same remain the issues with John Donne and John Milton. These metaphysical poets talk about love and making a temple of marriage.
This is laughable in an age where people have new meanings of life and lifestyle.
Similarly, we’re made to believe that Shakespeare’s tragedies are a must-read canonized literature.
But then, how do we read superficial tragedy when we have 3-year-olds washing ashore while trying to run to safety in a war-trodden country? Or where does revenge of a son for his father even stand when we’ve societies, ethnicities and whole populations being killed in air raids, tortured, burnt and bombed and nobody bats an eye?
Amid all this, thankfully, we’ve many schools and colleges recommending Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The celebrated author used a technique called Magical Realism. He talks about reality and magic in these realistic situations and hence in a subtle way suggests how lightly we take the life we are given.
Marquez made folklore and mystic tales relevant to us and hence made more sense to the modern times. The times that have lost all sheen and meaning to running to and from work and settling into a schedule.
Likewise we’ve Albert Camus, Kafka and the like, talking about the absurdity of life and how sometimes nothing makes sense while on the other, everything does.
Camus’s The Outsider comments on the society and how many of its notions and functioning is absurd. Nothing makes sense and we all still keep running from one place to another, pillar to post, doing God knows what, and ultimately fall to a death we never anticipated. Being told we are wrong and yet, not having any idea why.
Postmodern literature is even more alluring and interesting. They talk about the wars in Afghanistan and the Armenian exodus in Turkey. About conflict and how we have internalized and normalized bullets, deaths and blood on street.
To someone from another era, all of this would seem surreal. Something that cannot happen. In Classics, a gunshot sends shivers through the whole town yet in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, the whole town watches a live broadcast of the same. A real display of power, death and occupation. All one does in response is close the windows.
As a voracious reader, I would’ve loved to read more about these authors, their style of writing and the philosophy behind what they wrote. How they could base a story on a single character and keep the time period to 3 hours of an evening yet narrate lives in depth and create an impact. Instead, we remain stuck in history, not able to move forward neither learning anything.
And therefore, it’s a high time our curriculum is revised. We need more of Zadie Smith and Pablo Neruda instead of Chaucer and John Donne. The world has moved forward, we need to move with it too.