Sunday, May 5, 2013

Reading Literature Versus Reading Art

(William Shakespeare)

What could be the difference between visual arts (as in paintings, sculptures, photography and so on) and literature? I always ask myself this question whenever I look at a work of art or read a good piece of literature. Both involves reading; a sort of decoding the authorial intentions first of all, then looking for the subtexts depending on the cultural make up of my mind. While the former happens with a huge investment of textual analysis that simultaneously happens during the process of reading, the latter happens through projections and associations. Same thing happens when someone confronts a work of art hung on the walls of a gallery, a home interior or a public space. The people who get enamoured by the visual effect of a work of art or the textual flourish of a piece of literature are swimmers in shallow waters. They are like those people who exclaim at the wonderful nature of cinematography when asked about their opinion about a movie which has not made any impact on them. What I understand is that in both cases, swimming in shallow waters or scuba diving into the textual depths, a fair amount of ‘reading’ is involved. And the difference between the experiences of confronting a text and a visual piece should be sought in the impact of reading.

For me, the difference lies exactly where the sense of emulation originates in the mind of the readers. And I have experienced it, like many others in the world; the moment of that emulation, that euphoric juncture where one loses one’s subjectivity and assumes the nature of the text or the protagonist in the text. This sense of loss of subjectivity is not a bad investment as far as reading is concerned. Philosophers say that it is empathy, which could be short lived on the one hand if the text is ‘moving’ and long lasting if it causes a sort of ‘sinking in’ feeling. They say it is cathartic. For me, cathartic nature of textual experience and empathy are temporal. Such experiences enter into heart and from there to brain, stimulate certain faculties and leave you high and then dry once you close the text. But the real texts are those that make you live in the characters or the total experience for a long time. It could come back at odd moments facilitating nostalgia and déjà vu moments or even deep felt melancholy and euphoria as wells. A text read in your school times could come back to you with the same intensity on your fiftieth day and you could pine for it for the whole day and rest of your life.

I have not yet made clear the difference between a textual reading and visual reading. When you read a work of art which is ocular you tend to identify with the author/painter than the actual narrative or form or formlessness of that visual. There is a direct connect between the author and the experience. When you are an artist and you double up as a viewer and stand in front of a work of art, your training and experience as an artist might goad you to look for the structural integrity, grammar, tonal variations, strokes and then the overall feel imparted by a work of art. But when you are just a viewer, not an artist, you feel like identifying more with the author/artist. You imagine yourself as the author. If you look at a work of art by Vincent Vangogh, it is not that the sunflowers that depicted there cause you tremors, but the collective memory of the artist and his oeuvre. You project your collective knowledge, cultural grounding on to the work of art and the biography of the artist makes you think like him, feel a sort of insane greatness and all what comes along with it. You may ask, if the work of art you see is done by a new artist, comparatively unknown then where do you look for the artist in the work. My answer is that still you look for the artist in the work of art before you project your own associations and meanings on to the work.

However, when you read a piece of literature, you don’t see the author there. In these days of social net working and mediatised realities, authors are very much present in our society. Take the popular examples of Chetan Bhagat or Amish or even Dan Brown, when you read their works they hardly occur in these texts. You do not project their physical or mental pictures on to the characters in the narrative. Even if you try, even if you know that the narrative involves a lot of autobiographical elements of the author, you always do not see as your guiding principle. I remember reading Arvind Adiga’s ‘Last Man in the Tower’ or even his ‘White Tiger’. You do not see Adiga there. As an informed reader you must be knowing a bit about Adiga. You have read a lot about him. But still you do not look for him. I remember myself falling into the state of that old man in the tower hopelessly trying to hold the fort for the rights he believes in. When you read Jerry Pinto’s ‘Em and the Big Hoom’, though the promotional literature of the book says that it is quite autobiographical you do not see Jerry moving around in a state of limbo between a mad mother and a helpless sister. You tend to identify yourself with the protagonist or the mother herself. When you read Mother by Maxim Gorky, irrespective of your gender you identify with the Mother not with Gorky or Pavel. When you read any work of Orwell, especially 1984 you instantly identify with the Winston Smith and Julia and even the omnipresent and omniscient Big Brother.

Literature is big business. Often the writers do not get paid in a big way unless one becomes too huge to get hefty commissioning from international publishing houses. But the impact the literature and the authors leave on us, like the film protagonists and directors is so lasting that it cannot be erased by the quickies by the new entrants. Whereas in the case of art, an old artist could be replaced by a new artist. Speculative prices could bring a dead and gone artist back to mainstream art market. In the case of literature bad literature cannot be brought back through hagiographic airbrushing of the author dead or alive. I find this imbalance quite intriguing though I appreciate it considerably. Why only in art market, the author’s biography becomes very important to the work of art. Why in literature, author’s biography becomes important only when his/her creative product is worth pursuing? Is it because literature has textual values and could be assessed by the reader who share the same linguistic structure and in art there is no grammar and the meaning production is hugely abstract? I think it is the case. In visual art meanings extraneous to the ‘text’ could be attributed depending on the imagination of the critic and the seller. But in the case of literature however the critical mediation are possible and extraneous meanings could be found and unintentional metaphors could be brought in place, the total effect of the text lacks in all what has been said by the mediators, the text will fall flat.

(Raja Ravi Varma)

I have grown up with both visuals and texts. Both remain vivid in my mind. But whenever I talk about Ravi, the protagonist of ‘the Legends of Khasak’ by O.V.Vijayan, the author does not come to my mind. The author comes after I speak volumes about Ravi. When I think about Hamlet, Shakespeare does not come in front of me though recent research has found out that Shakespeare himself is a sign of a collective signifiers, the Bard of Globe Theatre does not mediate his protagonists to me. I have grown up with characters from literature; they have haunted my mind during the growing up years. And even now, at the age of forty four also, when I read Ramachandra Guha I become our national leaders, when I read Thackaray by someone I become Thackaray, when I read Mohsin Hamid I become his protagonists, I want to make it big in a big bad city. I want to rewind my life again, come back to a big city again, struggle and make it big. William Dalrymple never make me dream about him but his historical characters, Oscar Wild or O.Henry or Maupassant do not ask me to think about them, but all those young men who walked the streets with burning hearts and heads.

(Vincent Van Gogh)

But when I look at the works of Raja Ravi Varma or K.C.S.Panicker or Bhupen Khakar or Jitish Kallat, I think more about them than their works. Their works become a point of argument for me both as ‘reader’ and as a ‘critic’. That does not mean that when I read a good piece of literature I just want to become the characters only. I do want to become the author, identify with him/her, travel all over the world, attend book reading, live the life of Rushdie as Joseph Anton and so on. It is so exciting. But let me tell you that happens only when you have imbibed the feel of piece of literature you have just read or read long back. The more you go deep into that feeling, the more you want to become an author. And reading itself is becoming an author. But if you ask me whether I would like to hang out with a writer my answer would be an emphatic NO. Because late M.Krishnan Nair, whose literary columns had initiated me into world literature, used to tell his readers that it was futile and disappointing to meet an author as a person in a private space. Authors too are human beings and they also have feet of clay.

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