Purpose of Literature: A translation of Rabindranath Tagore's 'Sahityer Uddesyo'

Anirban Nanda

(This essay, originally titled 'Sahityer Uddesyo', was published in 'Bharati o Balak' [Bharati and the Boy] in the Bengali year 1296 and month 'Baishak' [1887, April]. The original Bengali text of this translation can be found in ‘Rabindra Rachanabali', Vol 17, published by Viswa Bharati in 2000.)

Worldly people are always in search of purpose in everything. Whenever they see a piece of writing, they ask, “What is the purpose behind of this?” But, it is not absolutely necessary for writing to be always guided by purpose. If there is a purpose, it’s good, if not, it doesn’t matter. Literature has nothing to do with that. Purposefulness is not the life of pure literature. It is not easy to squeeze out just the purpose from a true work of literature. The essence of such work doesn’t show itself that easily. The entire body of a human being is manifestation of vitality. To annihilate that vitality, that life, many nations have developed various weapons, but no one has been able to create a device that can extract the very soul out of a body and control it.

Nowadays, whenever critics of our Bangla literature get their hands on a work, they try to find out the purpose behind it. Perhaps the principle reason for this might be that without getting a particular purpose, they find it difficult to write. A teacher, who is habituated to punish his students by pulling fistfuls of hair from their heads, gets disappointed if he is asked to teach a bald student.

Let us assume, overwhelmed by too much intelligence, you may say, “I’ll extract the purpose of the river -- its billowy waves, its ornate water with streaks of sunrays, its incessant flow -- by vaporizing all its water.” To meet this goal when you pull up buckets of water with intense devotion and put them on heaters, you’ll be rewarded only with huge amount of muck and a lot of steam. But where are waves? Where is the sunshine? Where is the burbling sound of the river? Where is the flow?

Fumbling for the purpose will bring out something for sure. For example, groping in the riverbed of the Ganges brings out shrimp fish. For a fisherman that’s not of any less achievement, but the meaning of my telling this is that the absence of shrimps will not make any fundamental difference to the Ganges. But what is Ganges if there are no flow, no wave with playful light and shade, no calm and profound generosity? Flow cannot be subjugated; silhouette cannot be caught by a fishing rod. The calmness of Ganges can only be felt, but it cannot be fished out by any artificial means. The shrimp fish mentioned above cannot be felt in the Ganges, but it can be caught easily. Hence, for a purpose-seeking critic, the above fish-pretending insect is beneficial in every way.

In a pure literary work, whatever purposes one finds belongs to its additional or complementary elements. They are temporary. If something has a purpose, then it has some other name. When deriving a certain theory, describing a particular event are the purposes of anything, we call it philosophy, or history, or any other thing, according to its characteristics. But, literature has no purpose.

When can we call a historical writing a literature? We can call it a literature when even after all its historical parts become false, it still manages to survive. In it, history becomes an occasion only, not the purpose. It’s also true for philosophical, scientific and other studies.

Purpose cannot be found in creation, but can be found in construction. No one can decipher why flowers blossom, but everyone knows why a bundle of bricks burns, how mortar sprayer works. That’s why literature is creative, philosophy and science are constructive. Like creativity, literature is the purpose of literature.

If there is no purpose, then why does literature exist? Those who understand accountancy better than anyone else will ask this kind of question. The answer is not an easy one. It’s easy to prove that eating few sandesh-es will satiate one’s stomach and his desire for sugary flavour. If an unaware person says against it, he can immediately be silenced by stuffing two sandesh-es in his mouth. But while staying in seashore, the serene joy that sneaks in our body unawares and rejuvenates our health; it cannot be proved at once.

Literature allows us to feel the connection of hearts; it maintains the flow among hearts. The playful joys among hearts, the elixir of hearts are sustained by it. Human wisdom and knowledge can be bound by chains of logic, but there is no such way to unify hearts. That’s the domain of literature. The essence of literature lies in the sense of ‘being together’ of humans; reaching them, feeling their emotions. Literature makes our hearts warm, it flows air, causes the cycle of seasons among them; an open sesame of scents and songs and beauty. Having no specific purpose, literature thus fulfils such numerous purposes.

When friends meet each other, we talk incessantly, unnecessarily and how our hearts blossom! Such laughter, such inane discussion, such joy! When the aura of happiness in mutual eye-contact mingles with the sun, how sweet it becomes! Like a materialistic person, if we only talk about the reasons, if there is some meaning or purpose hidden like an insect in our every word, then where is the place for humour and fun, where is love, where is joy? Then everywhere we’ll see parched bodies, long faces, rickety necks, smile-less dry lips and eyeballs settled deep inside the sockets. Then the shadowy human beings will nit-pick meanings in each other’s words, or aiming each other’s grey-haired head, they’ll throw brickbats of purpose-solid words.

Thus, on the occasion when our hearts connect, the majority of literature is useless talks, and face to face, eye to eye, shoulder to shoulder embrace. In this way, literature is only manifestation and merriment. Joy is its beginning, end and in-between. Joy is its reason, joy is its purpose. Words happen just like events, for both are unavoidable.  

Translation Copyright ©Anirban Nanda 2016

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Anirban Nanda

Member Since: 09 Apr, 2015

Anirban felt a sudden urge to write on one fine Monday morning and missed his classes. A moviebuff, a tealover, and a booksniffer, Anirban is trying to write his first novel.He has published a few anthologies with Readomania (Defiant Dreams, When The...

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