WORD VIEW: Upside down world
While lovers of the liberal arts find it inconceivable that a college or university could exist without this area of study, the fact is that the humanities seems under threat of extinction.
Business, management and related studies, the social and natural sciences as well as technology now take precedence, judging by student enrollment.
In a world as upside down as this one, it seems hardly strange that the subjects we need most in our continuing civilising process are the ones we would most easily discard. Of course, the subject areas above are important. But while to my mind they provide us with information as to what to do as humans, the humanities teaches us what it is to be human. Perhaps we make better use of the varied areas of learning when we grasp what it means to be human in the first place.
What better way to see ourselves, for example, than through the mirror of literature, a subject to which every student should be exposed. While we may accept that no academic discipline can change human nature, the study of literature may significantly influence behaviour.
Take the financial meltdown that occurred within the last two years. It is fair to guess that the chief players would have been graduates in finance and related areas. While it is true that courses in business ethics exist, it would appear that the ethical arrow leads directly to the bottom line.
Is it too much of a stretch to believe that this group of individuals may have benefited considerably from having studied Shakespeare’s Macbeth? I’m assuming that they did not. For surely, they may have remembered the protagonist’s confession to a “Vaulting ambition which o’er leaps itself /And falls on the other.”
They may also have recalled his later realisation that he is “in blood/ stepped in so far, that . . . /Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
While one may argue that the crime of murder Macbeth commits is the ultimate, yet millions are suffering and indeed, blood has been shed as a result of the greed and over ambition of these corporate magnates.
Indeed, literature does provide the opportunity for much needed reflection.
One of my favourite poems in this regard is The Coronet by Andrew Marvell. The persona seeks to redress a “wrong” he has committed, and in recompense, he selects the choicest flowers with which to weave a garland for the head of the Saviour whom he fears he has offended; he is determined that his garland will be the most beautiful ever made.
On completing the coronet, the persona laments: “Alas I find the serpent old/That twining in his speckled breast,/ About the flow’rs disguis’d does fold/ With wreaths of Fame and Interest.”
What a mirror, and how worthy of introspection! Are we more susceptible to self-deception than we think? Are our best efforts ever free of self-interest?
I am equally intrigued by the The Serpent-tamer’s solutions to this problem: disentangle the serpent’s “winding Snare” or shatter the entire coronet. The flowers will wither but the serpent will also die.
George Lamming’s novel In The Castle Of My Skin is no less powerful in its evocation of a former Barbados which in some ways still exists.
One of the novel’s strengths is its characterisation, particularly of the mother who is left to father the young boy G. Not enough has changed in these more modern times.
Mr Slime is also an unforgettable character, and in terms of the exploitative traits his name suggests, he is still very much alive, particularly so when juxtaposed with the innocent, trusting, Ma and Pa. The issues of land ownership are also still with us: “Tis only right . . . that every man should own his own piece o’ land,” says Pa.”
Somehow, the issues of identity, race and class which are pervasive in the Caribbean seem more digestible in literary form. A poem or story is more inclined to leave a lasting impression.
Literature is a multi-sided mirror through which we see ourselves, distorted as the images may appear at times. We are also confronted with characters’ situations, attitudes and values and find ourselves taking one side or another. Even the suspension of judgement is a value in itself.
I join those who believe that literature is essential to the humanising process of any civilised society.
We need it now more than ever.
• Esther Philllips is an educator, poet and editor of BIM: Arts For The 21st Century. Email [email protected]