A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Why Literature?

Ashok Celly

John Stuart Mill was an extraordinarily brilliant child – what one would call a child prodigy. He learnt Greek at the age of three and zealously tutored by his intellectually formidable father James Mill acquired enormous learning at a very early age. Mill grew into an influential social and political thinker and achieved fame as the author of On Liberty among other things. Yet he felt everything was not alright with him. He seemed to lack the capacity to respond to the beauty of natural objects and more importantly, to empathize with other human beings. Perhaps his intellectual brilliance had led to emotional atrophy or, quite simply, his intellectual accomplishments were acquired at the expense of emotional sensitivity. In his Autobiography, Mill makes the following observation. “My education had failed to create these feelings1 in sufficient strength to resist the dissolving influence of analysis, while the whole course of intellectual cultivation had made precocious and premature analysis the inveterate habit of mind. I was thus, as I said to myself, left stranded at the commencement of my voyage, with a well-equipped ship and a rudder, but no sail (Robson & Stellinger, 1981,p 143).” Eventually, Mill found his redemption in Wordsworth’s poetry which sensitized him not only to the beauty of nature but was also instrumental in the cultivation of feelings he shared with other human beings2.

Mill is by no means an isolated case. Charles Darwin the celebrated life-scientists and the author of The Origin of Species admitted with some regret, and even a sense of guilt, that he couldn’t “endure to read a line of poetry” and “found Shakespeare intolerably dull” and that his mind seems to have become “a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of fact ..”(Schumacher, 1971, p 89).

This is indeed a case of damning self-indictment not very different from that of Mill. Both were victims of lopsided intellectual development; in each case the cognitive faculty had taken precedence over the affective and turned the individual into a robot of sorts or what in contemporary parlance would be called a nerd.

In more recent times, there is the tragic instance of the philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell whose daughter Katherine was shocked by her father’s clinical approach3 in bringing up his children, particularly his brother John who eventually turned insane. Katherine found her salvation in religious faith when her father’s rationalistic credo with its roots in the enlightenment left her high and dry. Katherine’s turning to Christianity and John’s insanity both can be seen in different ways as rejection of Russell’s quintessentially Enlightenment worldview.

Equally revealing is Virginia Woolf’s characterization of her father Sir Leslie Stephen and her husband Leonard Woof as “ruthless rationalists” (Haque, p 211) for she had found their approach to issues/individuals cold and unfeeling Regarding her father she observes,”… whole tracts of his sensibility had atrophied… he had no idea what other people felt” (Haque, p 211) ).

What could have possibly gone wrong with people as different and as distinguished as Mill, Darwin, Russell and Sir Leslie Stephen? And they may well be representative of the British, even European, intelligentsia in this. What Virginia Woolf called “The Cambridge disease” was perhaps a deeper and more pervasive malady and I believe it had something to do with the Enlightenment. The Eighteenth century Enlightenment attached the utmost importance to reason and its most powerful manifestation science. The Enlightenment project was to know more and more and to employ that knowledge to subdue the external world, i.e. nature to man’s advantage. Anything that came in the way was distrusted and suppressed. Disenchantment a la Max Weber became the dominant note of the Western malady. As Horkheimer and Adorno put it, “Enlightenment’s programme was the disenchantment of the world. It wanted to dispel myths and overthrow fantasy with knowledge (Dialectic of Enlightenment, p 1).” Anything that enchanted, say poetry, was suspect and needed to be pushed to the margins, if not altogether discarded. The Enlightenment project led to an overvaluation of reason and devaluation of emotions and imagination. One may recall Darwin’s observation quoted earlier that his mind

had become “a machine for grinding general laws (Schumacher, p 9).” This is precisely what the enlightenment aimed at. Its God was the machine – orderly, predictable and useful. The western man for the last three hundred years or so has lived exclusively by the left lobe, & has led a two-dimensional existence. Shelley in his celebrated critical work Defence of Poetry pointed out the tragic flaw in western culture when he observed that we lacked ‘the creative faculty to imagine that which we know (Holmes, p 49)’.

More recently an eminent Indian Poet Rabindranath Tagore and a reputed American thinker J. Pelikan have noted this grave deficiency in Western culture. In his justly famous address “An Eastern University” Tagore had observed: “For, even in the West, it is the intellectual training which receives almost exclusive emphasis. (italics mine) (Celly, p 68).

Similarly, J. Pelikan in his book Idea of the University talks about the contemporary discontent with the typical western university. “An overemphasis on intellectual knowledge many today would charge has made the university sterile and two-dimensional….(p 37).

It is time we restored the balance. It is time to give the arts in general and literature in particular their rightful place. We need to recognize and celebrate the fact that literature is different from social sciences. Vive la difference! The strident and somewhat pathetic attempt to jump on the bandwagon of social sciences seems to be a sign of the prevailing cultural malaise, i.e. the cognitive mode has come to dominate the human personality and emotions and imagination have been marginalized. We need to preserve and nurture the distinct identity of literature rather than treat it as an appendage of social sciences. While the social sciences pride on detachment, it would be hard to think of a creative writer who is not emotionally involved with his work or a reader whose emotions are not stirred by a work he values and loves to read. Bergson, the French philosopher attributed a vital role to emotion in the creative process. It may be worthwhile to quote from Angela Haque’s book Fiction, Intuition and Creativity. “Bergson believes that for the poet “feelings develop into images and the images themselves into words’… Creation, according to Bergson, is impossible without an emotional impetus (p 95).” Writers like Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein and Proust seem to back Bergson’s observation. Stein for instance believed that “a book will never be truer or deeper than your feeling (Haque, p 75).”

Literature no doubt is a way of knowing, but it is knowing in the right hemisphere. ‘Knowing in the blood’, as Lawrence would say. The creative writer apprehends intuitively and communicates through imagery, which makes literature a different kettle of fish from social sciences, history and philosophy and in a sense superior – if one can use such a word in these egalitarian times – to them. That the poets, playwrights and novelists are far ahead of social scientists was recognized even by Sigmund Freud, the high priest of Enlightenment, when he declared that the poets had discovered the Unconscious (O’ Brown, p 62) long before he did, and named his own psychoanalytic discovery as the Oedipus complex after the protagonist in the famous Sophocles play Oedipus Rex. Had Freud cared to follow the implications of his own insight, he would have recognized the role of the intuitive faculty in understanding human nature and been somewhat less optimistic about the power of reason.

Again, Wordsworth’s nature poetry, which to the hardboiled realist might have appeared as romantic poppycock, has been vindicated by Deep psychology in our times. Its exponents advocate what the poet expressed in more existential terms long ago, that is, an intimate relationship with nature makes for emotional happiness and well-being.

For instance, Deep psychologist John Swanson observes, “Reconnecting with nature reawakens us to pleasure and beauty that feed us in body, mind and soul”.4 This is so strongly reminiscent of Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’. That the poet can look far ahead and instinctively grasp the latest tendencies of a civilization (or a phase in civilization) can be demonstrated by even a little poem like “The World is Too Much With Us”, where the poet laments, ‘Getting and spending we lay Waste Our Powers’. How very contemporary!

To take yet another example, George Orwell in his novel Animal Farm showed far better understanding of what was happening in Stalin’s Russia than the western sovietologists did. So much for the hard core analytical reasoning – the power of the left hemisphere that governs our lives! As Robert Conquest puts it in a review article in TLS (Times Literary Supplement), “In

Russia one quite often hears the complaint, ‘How is it that Orwell understood our system, and so many Soviet experts in the West did not? The answer is that for the Westerners a considerable effort of the imagination was needed to understand an essentially alien political movement and the correspondingly alien political and social order it created. Orwell had the imagination, the experts did not.”

The regression to the pictorial mode that literature indulges in is an implicit recognition that the progress of civilization has been exclusively cerebral, and it is only through literature and the arts that we can recover the lost space that belongs to the right hemisphere, that a happy and wholesome existence would imply not just intellectual growth but also emotional and imaginative fulfillment.

Also, we seem to forget these days – these are highly cerebral times – that the joy one derives from reading a work of literature has as much to do with the form as with the context, with the manner as with the matter imagery, rhythm and even the arrangement of words play a vital role in the generation of total experience, the ‘rasa’. The ‘mellow fruitfulness’ of Keats’s “Autumn” is largely a matter of Imagery – visual, auditory and tactile even though one may not be aware of it and an ordinary reader need not be. The emptiness or hollowness of Macbeth’s existence towards the end of the play is communicated through a string of metaphors like ‘brief candle’, ‘walking shadow, ‘poor player’ etc. Which philosophical statement would have the same impact? Eliot’s mythical method is as vital to the vision in ‘The Waste land’ as the use of repetition and Biblical allusions to the sense of wonder and mystery of man-woman relationship in D.H. Lawrence. The magic or incantation that the writer creates by using metaphor and/or rhythm appeals to our senses and through them to the emotions.

Literature capitalizes on the psychic unity of mankind. It impacts the emotional substratum which unites men and women demolishing boundaries of caste, class and race. No wonder the appeal of a Shakespeare or a Kalidasa or a Mirza Ghalib is at once wider and deeper than that of a philosopher or a social scientist. Rightly viewed and accorded its legitimate place it could be our insurance against ‘nerdisation’. In a word, one could either go John Stuart Mill’s way and rejuvenate oneself, or just become a “machine for grinding general laws.” The choice is ours.


  1. “…Feeling which made the good of others and especially of mankind on a large scale, the object of existence…”
  2. “What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mine, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings which I was in quest of.” (Robson & Stellinger, 1981, p.151)
  3. “Why should he (John) trust those people who left him alone in the dark with his fears, who plunged him into the turbulent Atlantic despite his frantic screams” (Tait, 1977, p 180).
  4. “And the green land beckons…” (The Times of India)



Celly, Ashok (Ed.). (2008). Towards a new paradigm in higher education. Delhi: Kalpaz Publications.

Conquest, Robert (1991, September 20) The Times Literary Supplement, (TIS), No.4616.

Haque, Angela. (2003). Fiction, intuition and creativity. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press.

Holmes, Richard (1982). Coleridge. Oxford: OUP.

Noerr, Gunzelin S. (Ed.) (2002). Dialectic of enlightenment. Stanford, Stanford Univ. Press.

O. Brown, Norman. (1959). Life against death. New York: Random House.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. (1992). The idea of the university. New Haven & London, Yale Univ. Press.

Robson John M. & Jack Stellinger. (Eds.). (1981) Collected works of John Stuart Mill Volume 1- autobiography and literary essays. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Schumacher, E.F. (1971). Small is beautiful. New Delhi: Radha Krishna.

Swanson, John (2002, November 24) The Times of India. New Delhi.

Tait, Katherine (1977). My Father Bertrand Russell. London:Victor Gollanciz Ltd.


Ashok Celly

 Ashok Celly, PhD, retired as Associate Professor in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi. He has authored a book titled Emily Bronte, D.H Lawrence and the Black Horse (Pragati Publication, Delhi 1977). At present he is a freelancer.