Its media may change, it may superficially seem to have lost its adherents to lack of time and attention, or not be seen worthwhile in the digital era, but literature is adept at using technology to flourish and will retain its role in shaping civilisation for there is no other better way to express the human condition and create an interconnected world, say experts.
Examining how time is transforming literature or technology influencing it at a session titled “The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History and Civilisation” at the Jaipur Literary Festival 2018 on Sunday, academicians Martin Puchner and Homi K. Bhabha, also stressed tha it was vital that it remains open to accepting other literary traditions.
Puchner, a Professor at Harvard University and author of “The Written World” which explores the various intersections of storytelling and writing technologies down history, says that these predate the printing press or even invention of paper but were hugely influential.
He cited how orally transmitted epics like “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, “The Illiad” and “The Mahabharata” laid the foundation of their civilisations — Babylonian, Greek and Indian respectively.
He also maintained a crucial milestone was when texts came to be deemed sacred, thus transforming the way literature shaped socio-political structures.
Bhabha and Puchner also dwelt on how storytelling is both spread and transformed through translation, citing even in the 14th century, Johannes Gutenberg, the publisher who introduced the printing press to Europe, realised its importance to forge connections through diverse cultures through literature.
Puchner also contended that translation facilitates democratic dialogue, observing that there exists today, “a complicated, uneven and unfair world literature market in which the lingua franca, English, isn’t delivering enough in terms of translation”.
On how to introduce translations of world literature into academic syllabi, he emphasised the need to study and develop the humanities, especially world literature, not in a comparative framework, but also through the patterns of the intersections as much as the distinctions. This could illustrate the transformative effect literature has had on history, he said, calling for the scope of literature to extend beyond fiction into the realm of all written material, including sacred texts and significant political texts.
As Bhabha raised the aspect of the “politics” of world literature, Puchner said that this was similar to the politics of post-colonial literature, and “interventionist” in the respect that it discovers and establishes previously unacknowledged texts to add new voices. He gave the example of the recently published African epic “Sundiata”, which had so far been previously only transmitted orally. “Storytelling is a profoundly political tool,” he said.
He also agreed with Bhabha that a “cacophony of voices” should not drown out moments of reflection in the study of literature, saying new writing technologies also transform factors of circulation and redistribution, consequently creating a new audience, which in turn has the power to transform institutions, such as the recent #MeToo movement.
In conclusion, Bhabha said values are communally negotiated, and it is there that pedagogy, poetics, and language intersect, making world literature emerge as imaginative and interventionist, and putting the spotlight on aesthetics, ethics and representation, as exemplified by the ongoing litfest here where world literature is getting quite a prominent stage.