There are many ways to approach a literary work. Although many literary theories of old schools of thought are still in vogue, the 20th century witnessed some drastic changes in the way we approach the literary pieces. Historically, it was believed that in order to discover what the author intended to say a critic should try to know more and more about the author and the environment in which he or she lived. To discover the real meaning of a text, be it poetry or prose or any literary piece for that matter, they also used to emphasise the inner world of the author as well as the milieu. Linguistic and historical background of the work, too, was taken into account.
On the contrary, ‘The New Criticism’, a school of literary criticism that developed in 1920s and became more popular in the 1940s, stressed that the didactic and moralistic views, cultural or historical contexts or the author’s intention should be excluded. The advocates of this school said that rather than studying the personality of an author or the social and historical implications of his work, a detailed analysis of the text should be done. They called it ‘a close reading’ and applied semantics for the purpose.
The theories of The New Criticism, often referred to as ‘text-oriented’, were, in a way, challenged by the reader-oriented theories also known as ‘reader-response criticism’.
The reader-response theory says that a literary piece does not exist until it is read and ‘experienced’ by the reader and that it is the relationship between the reader and the text that gives new perspectives to the literary work. It also says that a literary work is a piece of ‘performing art’ and every reader creates their own ‘performance’ by reading it. The reader, therefore, does not have a passive role, but rather ‘creates the meanings’. Although the reader-response criticism became popular in 1960s and 1970s, theories that can be called its forerunner did exist much earlier and some critics, such as I. A. Richards, in a way paved the way for it when they discouraged approaching a literary work with preconceived ideas.
But, interestingly, this reader-response theory has many aspects and many interpretations too (every reader has ‘created’ his or her own meaning after reading it, I suppose). Joking aside, the notion that the meaning of a literary work depends on the interaction between the reader and the text and that every reader creates his or her own meaning has unavoidably opened the gates of potential or possible meanings. From here ensues what is known as the plurality of the meanings.
In Urdu criticism we do have discussions on these theories and related issues. Some of our modern-day Urdu critics such as Hasan Askari, Vazeer Agha, Muhammad Ali Siddiqui, Shamim Hanafi, Gopi Chand Narang, Jamal Panipati, Iftikhar Jalib, Zameeruddin Ahmed, Faheem Aazmi and others have discussed various literary theories. But in the writings of our not-so-senior critics we do not see much deliberation on new critical notions such as post-colonialism, plurality of meanings and related issues. Fortunately we have some comparatively younger critics who take these issues seriously and read and write about them. Dr Nasir Abbas Nayyar is one of them. Nayyar teaches Urdu at Punjab University’s Urdu department. His other works, such as ‘Mabaad jadeediyet: nazri mabahis’, ‘Jadeed aur mabaad jaded tanqeed’ and ‘Saakhtiyaat: aik taaruf’ have amply proved that Nayyar is well aware of the issues related to structuralism, postmodernism and post-colonialism.
But while discussing these issues, he does not let the eastern and local perspective slip and relates these theories to our environs and Urdu literature. His recently published book ‘Matn, siyaaq aur tanazur’, a collection of his critical essays and articles, discusses these issues, especially the ones related to text, context and perspective.
Commenting on the book, Prof Dr Hans Harder of Heidelberg University says that “Dr Nasir Abbas Nayyar’s engagement with international postmodern literary debates appears to be very significant in itself and also in the context of Pakistan. His article on the plurality of meanings [ma’ani ki kasrat] addresses one of the most fundamental things about literary communication. Literary criticism, and more generally, the act of reading cannot be straight-jacketed and has to be kept open-ended if literature is to remain alive, flourish and have its effect on life and society. So it is the duty not only of literary scholars but of any thinking person to keep literary criticism independent and tolerate the plurality of meanings of literary texts — not to become non-committal but to safeguard the potential also of classical texts to renew themselves in the brains of new generation of readers.”
What neither Dr Nayyar nor Dr Harder brings under discussion is the question whether the term ‘text’ also includes the religious texts and how one is to apply the text-related theories to the Scriptures. Hermeneutics, or the science of text interpretation, has developed a sub-field known as Biblical hermeneutics. The question that also remains unanswered is: does the notion that structuralism, as is sometimes put by the religious-minded, is basically a conspiracy against the Scriptures hold any water? One hopes that Dr Nayyar would examine the issue in his next book and without falling prey to the conspiracy theories would let us know how he sees these debatable issues.
The renowned critic Prof Shamim Hanafi’s opinion also adorns the book. Published by Islamabad’s Poorab Academy, the book is an invaluable addition to Urdu’s critical writings. It is highly recommended for the students of literature, both Urdu and English.