Undefining Literature


Undefining[1] Literature

Unlike most of the texts on this subject, this one is not an attempt to find a definition for literature; but on the contrary, it is an attempt to try to eradicate the horrible human habit of looking for objective definitions and universal answers to questions that do not have them. The definition of ‘Literature’ has been a point of discussion since the beginnings of time. Every age, every ideology has its own perception of what should be considered as literature and what should not. Every person takes the matter into his own hands: some saying that it has to be aesthetical; others stating that it should have an intellectual value; and some believing that literature can be found even in the instructions manual for a refrigerator or on the warning signs of the metro stations. Is it possible for opposite ideas about the same subject to be all correct? Could Cervantes, Joyce, Dan Brown and the Dadaist movement be part of the same category? Is it really necessary to define ‘Literature’ to be able to enjoy it?

It is surprising the obsession that society has of finding objective and universal truths. And it is even more surprising still that this society tends to apply the “rules of objectivity” into fields of knowledge that are by nature opposed to them. It could and possibly should be considered necessary to search for objective truths in the Exact Sciences such as mathematics, physics, chemistry or even biology, because their purpose is to be objective since they require accurate solutions to specific questions. However, the basic principles of the field of Humanities (not only literature, but also religion, philosophy, law or history among others) go against the possibility of being objective, given that they are nothing more than a person’s individual and subjective opinion about a subject, they cannot have an objective truth because they were born without it. So, if in essence the Humanities do not have an absolute and omnipresent reality in them, there is no use in forcing one.

In spite of this, society has the tendency of looking for objective truths in Humanities because “the objective way is of the opinion that it has a security that the subjective way does not have”.[2] Thanks to modern science and its frequent and abundant discoveries on the “absolute” and the “irrefutable”, society has developed the habit (almost the addiction) of imagining that it lives in a world where every conceivable question has an undeniable answer; where every disease has its cure; where every star has its name; and where everything that the mass media says is considered as an unquestionable truth. It is an age where the Greek sophist politicians would have loved to live because everybody is looking for truths and everybody accepts any opinion as universal knowledge; there is not even the need of being wise or being a great orator in order to attract the masses. The phrase that Montaigne wrote five hundred years ago applies perfectly to today’s situation: “are there any [opinions] so strange that habit has not planted them and established them by laws, anywhere she likes, at her good pleasures?”[3]

Although Montaigne was talking about habits and the cultural conflict between societies with different traditions, his principles of Cultural Relativism could be adapted into the study of Literature since the conflict is basically the same as in literary theory: because of habit, stubbornness or simple egocentrism, man is used to thinking that his ideas are always the rational and right answer. This blinds people’s mind to all the other possible points of view on that matter, considering everything but their judgments as wrong. Today, life and its circumstances are seen as right or wrong; as good or bad; as existent or non-existent. Nobody pays attention to the nuances in between; nobody stops to think that maybe the world is not so polarized; nobody even dares to imagine the likelihood of two opposite opinions to be both accurate.

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard embarks on a deep and critical analysis of the essence of both objective and subjective thinking in search for “the knowledge of God” and the nature of faith. He states that the different fields of knowledge have a very distinct relation to the individual person: there are some that require the subjective, introverted and personal implication of the individual, since they have been created and developed inside the individual’s mind; while other fields are impervious to the individual reasoning because they are irremovable parts of the natural order of the world, which the individual man can only watch from a distant and objective place, hence not being able to alter them or affect them in any way. In Kierkegaard’s words:

“The way of objective reflection now leads to abstract thinking, to mathematics, to historical knowledge of various kinds, and always leads away from the subjective individual, whose existence or nonexistence becomes, from an objective point of view, altogether properly, infinitely indifferent”.[4]

Analyzing the “objective fields of knowledge” from a subjective point of view would then be superfluous: it does not matter what does the individual think on the subject of gravity because no matter what his opinion is, gravity will still exist in the same way, completely unaffected by his judgment; this means that, to the objective reasoning, the existence of the subjective individual is indifferent.

But, if objective reasoning is indifferent to the individual existence, what would happen if the subjective and introverted fields, such as literature, were to be analyzed from an objective point of view? It would have to be as absurd and illogical as the individual that decides to criticize gravity. There is no space for objectivity in literature because “Objective thinking is […] aware only of itself and is therefore no communication”;[5] literature is, by nature, the creation of a subjective opinion on an individual’s mind; it develops itself as a dialog between different perspectives of life, of different cultures of the world, in different ages of history, and if it is banned from its subjective essence, it ceases to exist.

Subjectivity can then be considered as a basic principle for Literature: books can be seen and studied from countless points of views and there is not a wrong answer when analyzing them because there is nothing more than opinions when interpreting a text; not even the author has the authority to judge objectively the meaning of his work. Literature surpasses the opinions and expectations of the author, since it is from the moment that it is shown to the world that it starts to grow and to develop as an individual entity absolutely unattached from its creator. When Julio Cortázar, the Argentinean writer, was asked in interviews about the meaning of his short stories, he always began his answers with “In my interpretation…”, this means that he was conscious of the gap between him and his work; he knew that the symbolism of a cow for him and that one for a Hindu were very different; he had very clear that the meaning of a story changed drastically depending on who, where, when and under what circumstances was the tale being read.

Even though the past example talked about the countless possible meanings of a literary text and not about the countless possible meanings of ‘Literature’ per se, the way a text is interpreted defines it or not as literature. Lots of texts that today are seen as literature were not intended to be so on their creation: many of the classical Greek plays that today are read as literature were made with cathartic and medical aims; philosophical and political texts, as those of Julius Caesar or Montaigne are also considered literature; religious poetry or even the Bible, which had a purely spiritual end on their writing, are now sometimes read as literature. This means that literature is what a society or an individual consider as literature and there is no way of defining it as a closed and absolute category as Harold Bloom states. The answer to “What is Literature?” is like Heraclitus’ ever changing river, in constant and unstoppable movement, be it because a society defined a book as literature,  because an individual decided to see a book as literature, or simply because a book read as literature ceased to be studied that way. “The times they are a-changin’”, says Bob Dylan, and what one considers as literature “has to be recognized as a construct, fashioned by particular people for particular reasons at a certain time”.[6]

All this intends to elucidate why literature is a category marked more by who reads it than by who writes it, or even than by the text itself. Every book has infinite categorical possibilities, depending on the label that each person thinks fit to put to it. Terry Eagleton explains this point broadly, he says that, conscious or unconsciously, every society “rewrites” the texts that it reads; it acknowledges and absorbs what it needs from the book and leaves the rest behind; in Eagleton’s own words, “What matters may not be where you came from but how people treat you”.[7] For instance, one can value the metaphors and the rhythm of religious poetry without believing in God, while another could praise his God with the same poem without realizing the rhythm and verse inside of it; one could find the great dilemma of the human condition in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, while another could see a tale of vengeance and the search for recovering his lost lands and pride; one could read Alice in Wonderland for its fantastical story, or for its ludolingustics; Proust could be seen as a painter with words or as a writer of paintings; the examples are infinite.

The fundamental point is that the reader is the one who decides what he wants a book to be. The subjective individual has the power of decision on “What is Literature?” because there is no objective truth in literature, there is just a never-ending dialog where every person has his own dialectical truth, or how the philospher Protagoras would put it, “man is the measure of all things—that things are to me such as they seem to me, and to you such as they seem to you”.[8]

Concluding, ‘Literature’ is an indefinable term because it is a concept that changes with time, with society and with the individual. It cannot be labeled objectively because it is a field based on the subjective writings of an individual human being. So, while humanity keeps on existing, writing and reading, there will always be new books, hence more interpretations and more possible definitions. “‘Literature’ is, in this sense, a purely formal, empty sort of definition”[9], meaning this that it can, at the same time, be considered as an empty category because it does not define anything precise and in particular, or that it is an infinite category because anything can fit inside of it. Be it as it may, there is no use in keeping on wasting time, energy and ink trying to define ‘Literature’, better just concentrate on reading it.



[1] “Undefine”: verb. It is a possible non-existent word meaning: ‘To take away the definition; to unlabel*.

Even though the author is conscious that the word does not exist, he decided to use it because: 1) there is not another word for expressing that precise concept; and 2), as a consequence of 1), it reinforces his statement since it shows that society’s urge for objectivity and for finding definitions arrives to such a point that there is no word for expressing the opposite of “Define”.

*Also a possible non-existent word.

[2] Kierkegaard, S., Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments Vol. 1, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1992, p. 194.

[3] Montaigne, M. de, “On habit: and on never easily changing a traditional law”, in The complete Essays. Book I, The Penguin Press, London 1991, p. 125.

[4] Kierkegaard, S., Ibid., p. 193.

[5] Ibid., pp.75-6.

[6] Eagleton, T., Literary Theory: an introduction, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2008, p. 10.

[7] Ibid., pp. 7-8.

[8] Plato, Cratylus, in Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol.XII, William Heinemann Ltd., London 1921, 386a.

[9] Eagleton, T., Ibid., p.8.


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