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Aesthetics and literature

By Amir Suhail Wani

Nobody knows the whereabouts of a person who for the first time conceived of this bipolar division of poetry and prose. Nor are literary historians unanimous on the origin of poetic meters or the science of prosody. But man has continued to write both poetry and prose in due measures. The Greek dramas, Arabic Sab’ae Mu’allaqat, Persian Shahnamas and Mathnavis, Japanese Haikus, Shakespearian Plays and Urdu ghazal as they stand like the emerald hills in the city of art both inspire us and earn our respect and love on their own versatile merit. They continue to cast their splendour and never fail to mirror the socio cultural matrix in which these works of art were conceived. More importantly they continue to maintain their transpersonal and trans-historic character. Man has been assertive in one way or the other and has conquered nature both through science and art. Those realms where man failed to export his body, he exported his mind and this mental export always found its earliest expression in works of art. Nobody will maintain that the conquest of moon occurred on the basis of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” or Ibn-I-Arabi’s “Fatoohat-I-Makkiyah”, for both these works deal with celestial spheres. But we can discern the fact that both these works conceived artistically something that was going to be translated into reality by science and technology centuries later.


The primary task of literature is thus to beautify world and this beautification comes not merely by lyrical subtleties and musical notes intrinsic to literature but by the incorporation and exploration of beautiful ideas that literature sets before itself. One may disagree with the primacy of beauty for literature – aestheticism as it is called, but one can’t wholly do away from such a perennial notion. In the river of time art and beauty have existed like twins quite inseparable from one another and literature has been a primary vernacular for expressing this artistic beauty. The structural beauty, rhythmic flow and metric notion that is so essential to almost all sacred texts derives its essence from the same notion of aesthetics. But beauty is not that literature is all about and also given the fact that aesthetics is an aspect of subjectivity, the proposition of aestheticism is susceptible to criticism from various camps. The assumption that literature thrives on beauty and beauty only may not be a concept of so much importance in modern parlance, particularly at a time when borders between sacred and profane, beauty and ugliness are being redrawn at every instant. Thus the task of literature is not only to throw man in trajectories of abstraction and to let his mind wander in Infinity of imagination but importantly literature has to concern itself with man and his life here on earth too. True literature discovers and defines ideals that have been hitherto unheard of, but these ideals shall not be so far removed from human pragmatism that they turn out to be untenable in totality. Thus a literary work has to strike a balance between literary ideals and living ideals. By demanding from literature the discovery of ideals tenable to human efforts I don’t imply nor do I favour that literature shall be used as handmaid to an ideology, as has been done time and again. What I intend from such a statement is the precarious ability of literature to transform mundane into sublime and vice versa. This statement holds much value in contemporary literary landscape where one can no longer work with mythological narrations but has rather to center his work around human aspirations.

Being the product of human individual psyche shaped by a matrix of socio cultural factors a literary work is expected to preserve the ideals of space time in which it is conceived. This assigns a sublime historical to literature. If history is the chronology of events and individuals, then literature is the chronology of ideas and ideals. Historian captures human evolution like a photographer but a writer captures it like a painter.

Our times which are also witnessing a growing trend alienation from the tradition have witnessed a quasi-mystical genre of poetry, the typical representatives of which are Amrita Pritam, Nida Fazili and possibly Khalil Gibran too. This genre of literature has done a great service in humanising the divine and thereby enabling all of us to maintain our loyalty to tradition, sacred and religious in the face of growing challenges from unchecked scientism with its repercussions on all aspects of human existence. Rudolf Panwitz while deliberating upon the role of literature remarked that the function of literature is to envision future while one is still in the womb of present. This literature has often been paralleled to the Holy task of prophet hood by many scholars of art and sacred.

Man is a creation and partakes God in his creative activity. This is what a leading Pakistani scholar Dr. Shahzad Qaisar describes as the metaphysical ontology of all art, poetry included. Thus, man writes, despite many of us know very well that we are suffering from “pseudo pregnancy of art”, but that doesn’t bow our courage –“the courage to be” and the courage to express this being in whatever way we can. Poetry is an opening of being into the infinite ocean of becoming and is one of the ways of overcoming our finitude imposed on us by our physicality. All poetry in its own frame of reference is great poetry, but seen from a universal frame, the poetry that “awakens the poet within us” is to be deemed as the greatest poetry. Any poetry that fossilizes thinking in a specific mould falls short of poetic caliber and falls down to the category of sermon and we need to beware that there is a possibility for sermon to be poetic but no possibility for poetry to be sermonic , for this process in its realization deprives poetry of its very essence. I maintain that if prose is actuality then poetry is possibility and any poetic attempt that fails to unveil further possibilities is incredulous and decays of its own, but great poetry (art in general) besides immortalizing itself confers immortality to the mind which conceived it first and makes an artist exclaim:-

“Sabbt ast bar jareeda-e-aalam dawaami ma”

(The author is a freelance columnist with bachelors in Electrical Engineering and a student of comparative studies with special interests in Iqbaliyat & mystic thought. He contributes a weekly column for this newspaper that appears every Monday. He can be reached at: [email protected])