January 22, 2016
If we frame literature as a body, then it follows that literature functions as a system, much like a human body. Within this frame, it is relevant, then, to address literature through the analogy of a healthy biological system, such as the human body. In Aryuvedic teachings, each individual body is made up of three elemental substances called doshas. Doshas fluctuate in a unique percentage within each individual. The goal is to maintain a personalized balance within these doshas, Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, which results in a healthy body. It is not a single, equal percentage for everyone (a one-size-fits-all dosha), but rather an individualized portion suited to each person.
If we are discussing literature, then, there are many divisions one can make: Classics, Romantic, Medieval, Contemporary, poetry, prose, etc. We have all read bits and pieces, but most likely there is on category that stuck with us. This composes, for the reader, their main canon. Studying a canon in this aryuvedic frame makes an interesting point because it highlights the other. In seeking balance between three doshas, we would have to seek balance by finding the things that border our canon and creates its perimeter. The argument would be to seek sources outside of the canon in which we work, texts also of importance and ideas, but found outside of our existing structure.
This is, of course, extremely important for development of global ideas. For example, at Harrison Middleton University, we use The Great Books which focus on literature of the Western World. This does not mean, however, that thought or discussions are of the Western World only. Instead, the curriculum asks that we read initial arguments – primary texts, most likely those texts that formed our childhood and adolescence, whether we know it or not – to instill an idea of the pattern that the argument assumes. This is a very useful tool for granting structure and form to large, abstract arguments and in subverting them or moving beyond their bounds. In “The Love of Reading”, Virginia Woolf states, “Critics and criticism abound, but it does not help us greatly to read the views of another mind when our own is still hot from a book that we have just read. It is after one has made up one’s own opinion that the opinions of others are most illuminating.” Once an argument is developed and framed, the reader ably steps outside of the primary texts in order to revisit old debates, read old works with new eyes and new works with old arguments in mind. The important part of this development exists in reading the primary texts first. The last step, according to Woolf, should be attention to the opinions and commentaries.
The idea that a canon avoids another tradition is a misconception. Instead, the canon is framed to build a complete understanding of one tradition – which can only exist in contraposition to another. Acknowledging one simultaneously acknowledges the other. Often arguments complement each other too, which combines to create our aryuvedic body of world literature. A healthy body is composed of more than one dosha, more than one canon. This sounds oddly contradictory since canon is typically understood as a single body of essential texts that have shaped society. Therefore, we typically think that only one canon exists: the canon. However, literature, just like a body or a culture, is not static. It ages, grows and reinvents itself. For this reason, literature continues to fascinate and captivate us.
If we look at world literature as one thing, as one body, then we run the risk of oversimplifying. Knowing one field well can only grant access to another field and another and so on. We must enter the world through some sort of frame, and from there, build our questions as best we can. Growing knowledge of all types of literature enables a healthy, balanced view of literature in general. Obviously some texts offer more wisdom than others, especially when tracing a single idea (such as love). It is most helpful to have a framework before studying the vast amount of literature that deals with such a question. Since no body is equal in percentage of dosha, we should not seek to attain any strict portion, but rather balance in general. Be unique: study the question that grabs you, define literature in terms of your worldview. Continue with a healthy curiosity, observant of all borders. And then cross them. As in aryuvedic teachings, balance grows from concentration and also from attention to balance.
Woolf concludes her short essay on reading with passion. She writes, “Reading has changed the world and continues to change it. When the day of judgment comes therefore and all secrets are laid bare, we shall not be surprised to learn that the reason why we have grown from apes to men, and left our caves and dropped our bows and arrows and sat round the fire and talked and given to the poor and helped the sick – the reason why we have made shelter and society out of the wastes of the desert and the tangle of the jungle is simply this – we have loved reading.”
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