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A fragment of a clay tablet inscribed with verses that form the Epic of Gilgamesh, widely regarded as the first great work of literature ever created. The artefact is displayed in the Sulaymaniyah Museum in Iraq and is believed to date back to the Babylonian period (2003-1595 BC) | Wikimedia Commons
A fragment of a clay tablet inscribed with verses that form the Epic of Gilgamesh, widely regarded as the first great work of literature ever created. The artefact is displayed in the Sulaymaniyah Museum in Iraq and is believed to date back to the Babylonian period (2003-1595 BC) | Wikimedia Commons

"Humans had been telling stories orally ever since they had learned how to communicate with symbolic sounds and use those sounds to tell tales of the past and of the future, of gods and demons, tales that gave communities a shared past and common destiny. Stories also preserved human experience, telling listeners how to act in difficult situations and how to avoid common pitfalls. Important stories, of the creation of the world or the founding of cities, were sometime sung by specially appointed bards, who had learned these stories by heart and performed them on special occasions. But no one wrote them down, even long after the invention of writing. Bards remembered stories with precision, and before they grew old, they would pass the stories on to their students and successors.”

The importance of stories and storytelling cannot be emphasised enough. As thinking and interpretive beings, humans learn from the drama of life as lived and enacted by other people in different eras and cultures in the spirit of constant learning and the desire to make the present better than the past — or so I assume is the function of stories in our lives. As a student of literature — someone who spends most of her time engaging with obscure texts from different cultures and time periods, languages and the narrative art of telling and writing stories — I often wonder what purpose does the study of literature as a lifelong commitment serve in our increasingly utilitarian world. Or, more precisely, of what use can literature be when all we have harnessed in today’s world is the language of violence, symbols of mass destruction and utter thoughtlessness?

The instant response to these questions lies in realising our surprising ability to forget listening to the past, its peoples’ mistakes and pitfalls that not only contributed to the downfall of empires, but also of individuals’ personal and collective doom. In a striking display of ignorance and arrogance at our self-destructive potential, we have not only isolated ourselves from the wisdom of our ancestors, but have also managed to create a rather incoherent web of fleeting narratives that don’t allow for solitary contemplation, idleness and what Socrates called “a silent dialogue between me and myself”, for a more inclusive ethical consciousness that opposes oppression and injustice in more meaningful ways.

Martin Puchner’s painstakingly researched book examines the role of literature in shaping the world around us

However, the more deliberate response to these questions requires a sustained engagement with what literature, both in its oral and written forms, has achieved in our collective past and without its existence what kind of world we would have been inhabiting. Martin Puchner’s The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilisation is a brilliant and ambitious attempt at engaging with precisely this question. Puchner, who teaches drama, English and comparative literature at Harvard University, takes us through a remarkable journey of the beginnings of literature in the Western world, starting from the Macedonian conqueror Alexander’s love for books — he kept the Iliad along with a dagger as the two most important things throughout his conquests — to the dismantled world of postcolonial nations trying to reclaim their past, rewrite their histories and find their origins through the ruins of European colonisation.

Puchner’s range of chapters and their topics is impressive as it reminds us that it was only the power of stories, and the transformative yet invisible force of literature, that allowed human societies to evolve to their present consciousness. His chapters, particularly those dealing with the nature and function of classical epics such as that of Gilgamesh and the creation of the holy scripture, are fascinating for their transportive quality as they problematise the birth of writing technology through stone and clay and the scandal that the birth of this “orphan art” created in the ancient world. It is not for nothing that some of the most influential teachers in human history, such as Buddha, Socrates and Confucius, preferred the form of oral dialogue with their disciples over writing. In fact, as Puchner tells us through several stories from the lives of these teachers, writing was never permitted by these masters. It was only years after the death of these figures that we have a written record of their thoughts.

In following the thread of how writing became the most central part of the human consciousness as it evolved through the challenges of the ancient world to modern warfare to space missions, Puchner examines the role of literature for breaking and exposing the boundaries of oppressive power structures and the creation of new consciousness. For example, in his detailed study of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Puchner analyses one of the earliest novels in world history and its female Japanese author who secretly taught herself the Chinese alphabet and literature — reserved to be taught only to men of her time — and wrote one of the greatest novels of all times.

This fascinating chapter also tells us of the tribulations that women writers and, in some cases, writers in general, faced in order to give us the freedom that we today, unfortunately, take for granted: “Learning Chinese and the historical records of Japan was a risky undertaking. Even though Murasaki Shikibu tried to hide her knowledge, sometimes she let it slip inadvertently. The emperor himself once remarked, half admiringly, how Murasaki must have studied Japanese history, giving rise to rumours that Murasaki was flaunting her knowledge. She knew that she had to be more careful in the future. For a woman learning Chinese letters and Japanese history just wasn’t done. In a world where gossip and politics were indistinguishable, attracting the wrong kind of attention, or seeming not womanly enough, could have dire consequences. To protect herself, she began to pretend that she couldn’t read even the most common Chinese inscriptions on the paper screens.”

As Puchner dwells on the power of the written word and its ability to transform the world as we know it, one very important thing he draws our attention to is what he calls our tendency of “textual fundamentalism.” In problematising the dilemma of choice in how we choose to interpret sacred and foundational texts, Puchner explains its two contradictory assumptions: “the first is that the texts are unchanging and fixed. The second acknowledges that texts need to be interpreted but restricts the authority to interpret them to an exclusive group.” It’s an important phase in Puchner’s retelling of the story of literature in which he does not dispense with the dark side of the narrative foundations of our beliefs, whatever they may be.

Be that as it may, Puchner’s book is a great reading experience for anyone interested in the transcultural phenomenon of literature and its transformative force throughout human history. However, as a non-Western reader I found the study lacking in some significant aspects of major literary traditions, such as those of Persia and India. Epics such as the Shahnameh [Book of Kings], Vis o Ramin [Vis and Ramin], Hamza Nama [Adventures of Amir Hamza] and Tilism-i-Hoshruba [the Enchantment of Senses] — to name a few major pre-colonial works of Indo-Persian history that are now available in brilliant English translations — remain conveniently forgotten. Needless to say, these foundational literary texts stand tall with the same magnitude as The Epic of Gilgamesh or Thousand and One Nights — perhaps the story of literature in Puchner’s narrative needed to economise on some of the crucial literary traditions in a single volume. While Puchner’s later chapters do take us on a ride through the Jaipur Literature Festival in India, the popular controversies of censorship in this ‘global literary enterprise’ and several other manifestations of literature and writing technologies, one is left feeling that a more inclusive and expansive story of literature is yet to be told.

The reviewer is a PhD student at McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies

The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape
People, History, Civilisation
By Martin Puchner
Random House, US
ISBN: 978-0812998931
448pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 22nd, 2018