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The Value of Literature

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What is the value of literature?

It depends on what you want to be or do. If you want to be a litterateur, you must read a lot of literature. Then you will know what has been written and you won’t repeat old things. You have to keep an alert mind and know how to say things in a striking manner. But if you want real knowledge, you can’t find it in literature.

To me, literature as such is on a pretty low level —it is mostly a work of the creative vital, and the highest it reaches is up to the throat centre, the external expressive mind. This mind puts one in relation with outside things. And, in its activity, literature is all a game of fitting ideas to ideas and words to ideas and words to one another. It can develop a certain skill in the mind, some capacity for discussion, description, amusement and wit.

I haven’t read much of English literature —I have gone through only a few hundred books. But I know French literature very well —I have read a whole library of it. And I can say that it has no great value in terms of Truth. Real knowledge comes from above the mind. What literature gives is the play of a lot of common or petty ideas. Only on a rare occasion does some ray from above come in. If you look into thousands and thousands of books, you will find just one small intuition here and there. The rest is nothing.

I can’t say that the reading of literature equips one better to understand Sri Aurobindo. On the contrary, it can be a hindrance. For, the same words are used and the purpose for which they are used is so different from the purpose for which Sri Aurobindo has made use of them, the manner in which they have been put together to express things is so different from Sri Aurobindo’s that these words tend to put one off from the light which Sri Aurobindo wants to convey to us through them. To get to Sri Aurobindo’s light we must empty our minds of all that literature has said and done. We must go inward and stay in a receptive silence and turn it upward. Then alone we get something in the right way. At the worst, I have seen that the study of literature makes one silly and perverse enough to sit in judgment on Sri Aurobindo’s English and find fault with his grammar!

But, of course, I am not discouraging the teaching of literature altogether. Many of our children are in a crude state and literature can help to give their minds some shape, some suppleness. They need a good deal of carving in many places. They have to be enlarged, made active and agile. Literature can serve as a sort of gymnastics and stir up and awaken the young intelligence. I may add that the whole controversy that has gone on among the teachers recently on the value of literature is a storm in a teacup. It is really part of a problem which concerns the whole basis of education.

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There is a subtle world where you can see all possible subjects for paintings, novels, plays of all kinds, even the cinema. It is from there that most authors receive their inspiration.

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 (A teacher suggested that books dealing with subjects like crime, violence and licentiousness should not be available to young people.)

It is not so much a question of subject-matter but of vulgarity of mind and narrowness and selfish common-sense in the conception of life, expressed in a form devoid of art, greatness or refinement, which must be carefully removed from the reading-matter of children both big and small. All that lowers and degrades the consciousness must be excluded.

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 I have been laying great stress on the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata and on the songs of Kabir, Mira, etc. Is it against your way to continue these old things?

Not at all —it is the attitude that is important. The past must be a spring-board towards the future, not a chain preventing from advancing. As I said, all depends on the attitude towards the past.