Literature is an antidote to fundamentalism

I am convinced that fundamentalism is essentially a mode of reading and that literature equips us to identify the fallacies of this mode

I am convinced that fundamentalism is essentially a mode of reading and that literature equips us to identify the fallacies of this mode

While thousands of comments on the Koran have been written in the past, contemporary Islamists have hardly engaged in their holy book: regard,” note AS Sidahmed and A. Ehteshami, the editors of Islamic fundamentalism. This is not surprising, and it is not limited to Islam, or even religions. In fact, it can be argued that fundamentalism – religious, political or economic – is essentially a textual mode. It is a way of reading, the antidote to which is literature.

In different ways, texts from religion, politics, economics and other disciplines use language to explain, interpret and codify the complex reality of the world, both as it is experienced in our heads and as it exists in out of our heads. Every religion believes it has the right understanding of what really exists in and around us, and often justifies this by making the unprovable – and historically easy to refute – claim that its language is a gift from God or the gods. . But the stories told by religious or revered texts — whether Koran or the Bible or the Ramayana — offer many possibilities for interpretation. It is in the nature of language to do this, both because it differs across individuals, time and space, and because language cannot be identical to what exists outside of language: reality, in everyday language.

Stories leave holes

What happens in religions is no different from what happens in literature. At its simplest, stories are told. But stories do not exhaust the reality they set out to describe, because no language can do that. And the words of the stories leave gaps, which grow or shrink through time and space. The fundamentalist is afraid of it. He – and he is often a man – tries to pin down the meanings of the language of religion, weaponizing stories to force others to stop thinking differently from him. No wonder he doesn’t want a lot of comments; he insists on interpretation or, at best, on a school of certified interpreters.

“Literature does not give you an easy answer; on the contrary, it forces you to take a stand and find an answer in your space and time”

As I said, it is a question that cuts across religions and one can encounter aspects of it even in a very diverse and potentially philosophical religion like Hinduism. Noting that the mahabharata was written from oral roots after “the dharma was essentially somewhat codified”, Wendy Doniger comments: “What is dharma? Yudhisthira asked, and didn’t stay for an answer. As one of the earliest dharma texts [ Apastamba Dharma Sutra] puts it, ‘True and False [dharma and adharma] don’t go and say, “We’re there”; neither the gods, nor the Gandharvas, nor the ancestors say: “This is good, that is bad”. mahabharata deconstructs dharma, exposing the inevitable chaos of moral life. There is no easy ‘dharma pill’ offered by the stories of mahabharata; they make you think of dharma in all its complexity, of reality in its infinite forms.

Survival strategy

That’s what literature does. Literature does not give you an easy answer; on the contrary, it forces you to take a stand and find an answer in your space and time. He uses words knowing that the silences and gaps in the narrative are important and will need to be searched for meaning to emerge. It works with contradiction and irony and other aspects of language use that the fundamentalist reading of language will not allow.

But I am not talking here about the ambivalence of literature. In fact, literature is not ambivalent, if by this word we mean that it allows us to sit comfortably on the fence. It’s not. On the contrary, literature always calls on the reader to make judgments. Without these judgments, the reader cannot make sense of either the language or the story (including such obvious elements as the character) or their complex interrelationships.

But this judgment is not the same as a court decision, as noted by Martha Nussbaum and Jonathan Culler. This is a judgment that must be made in each case of reading. It is complete in this case, but needs to be done — and sometimes undone — over and over again as you read.

I am convinced, after almost half a decade of struggling with literature and religion, that fundamentalism is essentially a mode of reading, and that literature, if read as literature, allows us to spot the errors of this fundamentalist mode, which creates a distorted, limited and ultimately misguided understanding of the complex reality out there. This happens with religious texts, but also with economic (“Capitalism is the only option”) and political texts, as the fascists and Stalinists showed. This is why I strongly believe that the human ability to read literature as literature – an ability we are losing these days – is essential to the survival of humanity and our fragile earth.

The writer is an Indian scholar based in Denmark whose new novelThe body near the shore (HarperCollins), soon available in India.

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