Essay: Because Written Literature Is Capable

Pages: 3 (1400 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 3  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Literature  ·  Buy This Paper

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[. . .] This taps into the paradox of overreliance on wisdom literature, and when reading for wisdom becomes its own sort of follow: Chairman Mao of course published his own Little Red Book, which contained gnomic poetic observations not unlike Rumi, but which was used as part of a totalitarian reeducation structure. "Propaganda" is, of course, a form a written communication which aims to have a specific behavioral effect upon its reader. How is a work of literature different? Or if a work of literature has no palpable designs upon its reader, how can it hope to have any effect in competition against propaganda that does? The great irony of Siije's novel is that the narrator takes his Balzac novel, which he understands as nothing more than a desire to tell a story for its own sake, and decides to use it the way Mao used his Little Red Book: "With these books I shall transform the Little Seamstress. She'll never be a simple mountain girl again" (p. 100). The transformation succeeds, which suggests that virtually any sort of work can be used for propaganda: the irony is that the seamstress escapes from the narrator and goes on to live (the reader hopes) a fuller life. In other words, Balzac did provide some wisdom -- but it did not benefit the narrator, who instead learns the same lesson that Mao did, about the ability to find contradictory meanings even in the most tendentious forms of instruction. Siije's work does not match up to the expectations of Maoist educators or reeducators, as surely as his narrator's intentions in teaching Balzac to the seamstress are in one sense gratified, but in another sense wholly frustrated.

This is a novelistic form of irony, but there are different rules in drama, where there is no strong narrator to guide a reader's interpretation. Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman uses transmitted wisdom literature -- although in this case it is oral wisdom contained in Yoruba proverbs -- instead to define society within the drama. Of course any drama -- which requires multiple actors, and is performed in front of an audience -- is in itself a little microcosm of society. To some extent an audience assembles in judgment, like a jury. The difficulty here is that Death and the King's Horseman dramatizes a clash of societies, between British colonialists and Yoruba tribespeople. But this is where Soyinka's choric figure the "Praise-Singer" -- whose function in the play alludes to that of the chorus leader in a Greek tragedy -- comes in handy. The Praise-Singer paints the picture of the tribal society through its own recorded wisdom:

Praise-Singer: The river is never so high that the eyes

Of a fish are covered. The night is not so dark

That the albino fails to find his way. A child

Returning homewards craves no leading by the hand. (43)

These Yoruba proverbs are voiced by other characters in the play throughout, and to some extent they represent a way of defining a society by its own recorded wisdom. The orality of this recorded wisdom is nicely complemented by the orality of Soyinka's dramatic performance, and the audience is therefore asked to measure the plot of the story -- and to measure their own lives -- against the wisdom of these proverbs, which are all about the obviousness of certain acts of reading. The three proverbs used here are all about the ability of maintaining correct wisdom and knowledge even in times of threat: a rising river, a dark night, a child separated from home and parents. Soyinka's proverbs here point in the same direction that the original example from Rumi does: they indicate that there are limits to the sort of knowledge that can be acquired from instruction, because some forms of wisdom are innate.

Works Cited

Rumi, Jalal al-Din. The Essential Rumi: New Expanded Edition. Translated by Coleman Barks. New York: Harper-Collins, 2004.

Siije, Dai. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. New York: Anchor Books, 2001.

Soyinka, Wole. Death and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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