In his The Death of Criticism, Terry Eagleton spoke of the rude shock a clerk in his office might experience if she stumbled upon the thought that her boss is actually paid, and paid very well for that matter, for just reading poetry and prose. If she realises this, and perhaps begins to make noise about it, the authorities might again realise that, indeed, they might be wasting money on a venture that has no purpose. If they were to realise this, it would mean the death of criticism.
Terry Eagleton chose this anecdote to show how people might view literary education as an exercise in futility because, as Edward Said demonstrated in his Orientalism, literature or the cultural realm, and its expertise, seem institutionally divorced from their real connection with power (see Said, 2003: 2-3). In fact, what Said wanted to say was that literary education should be taken very seriously, because it contained things needed to build a man or woman for social change. In other words, as earlier mentioned in the abstract, texts contain macro and micro types of information; if these are properly harnessed and transformed, they have the capacity to change our world.
We derive an extraordinary amount of information from texts – information about politics and history, sociology and psychology. A great deal of information is available in texts, but it also demands transformation into knowledge. It is at this stage that information transformed to knowledge becomes power. This power that the individual – that is, the scholar of literature – possesses is actually a cognitive state he has attained that makes it possible for him or her to become a better person or a bad person. This state must, however, be made concrete and practical through the application of the knowledge gained, which has actually made him or her powerful.
The ability of the scholar or critic of literature to become a mediator in Conflict Resolution is only one aspect of his or her method of making his knowledge practical. He or she may decide to apply his or her knowledge, for it has become a source of power for him or her in fighting against oppression and injustice. He or she may decide to go into party politics and seek elected office as a way to improve the lives of others. Or, he or she may even begin to apply words to paper – that is, to become a writer. The fact of a writer being a person who is making his or her knowledge practical or functional lies in the fact that, first of all, he or she has a reason for wanting to write –what the Marxist critics would call authorial intention in writing: if the writer is not trying to reform a morbid psyche, he or she might intend to teach or raise issues about a condition that he or she thinks needs to change. They could even inspire a revolution. They might decide to report events as well as ensure that people become informed, because it is in being informed about something that makes change become inevitable.
Today, Nigerians are faced with the challenges of insecurity occasioned by religious extremism that borders on terrorism. This extremism is based on the misappropriation of scriptural injunctions. They are used – through a medley of religious, political, and ethnic reasons – to justify the actions of extremists.
The chaotic state of Nigeria’s present could be compared to the situation of Victorian England, where the progress made in science and technology brought man to the brink of apostasy. The fact that science could not verify the existence of God led many to trust solely in the proven capacity of the human mind. The German philologist and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche boldly declared, in his fictional work Thus Spoke Zoroaster or Also Sprach Zarathustra, that “God was dead ... that He died in his pity with humanity” (see Nietzsche as translated by Hollingdale,1975: 114). The Godlessness of the age, as well as the doubt cast upon the divine authority of the Church, led Mathew Arnold to propose in his Literature and Dogma (2002) the need for Literature to take the place of religion (see Arnold). This he thought was possible because in his Culture and Anarchy (2004), his social criticism and his own way of defining Humanism, literature is the carrier of culture. His humanism consists of getting rid of ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and prejudice; it is defined by a continuous quest for the ideal. Therefore, in his Literature and Dogma (2002), he argues that sacred texts should be read as literature because values and morals are derived from them, and as such, they contained things to make us better people. In other words, people should read sacred texts whether or not the existence of God is verifiable or not, because reading them will eventually make them men of culture, or people who have overcome their ignorance, prejudice, narrow-mindedness and continually pursue the ideal of perfection.
By implication, therefore, literature must rescue religious bigots. As George Gordon, the early Professor of English Literature said, “England is sick and ... English Literature must save it. The Churches (as I understand) having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature now has a triple function: still, I suppose to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the state.” Rephrased one may say: Nigeria is sick and literature must save it. Our religions have faltered, and social remedies have been slow; thus literature must now not only delight us, but also instruct us, heal the state, and save our souls.
Recently, the Federal Government of Nigeria had shown interest in getting to the root causes of religious extremism among Muslims in Nigeria. The Almajiri factor has been identified as one of the causes of religious extremism in Nigeria. Somehow, they have decided that the high rate of poverty and ignorance among some individuals or Almajiris in the North, whose condition was precipitated by certain perceptions and beliefs, caused the frustration that led to this cataclysmic turn of events in Nigeria. The federal government is thinking of rehabilitating these individuals through education. Now the question is: what type of education do these people need? What type of culture will the education teach them? Education liberates the mind – especially good education in the humanities. Vocational education will no doubt teach them practical skills, which could help them in creating employment for themselves; however, for their ignorance to be conquered, for their minds to be liberated, for them to become truly free and genuine human beings, who will harness the potentialities of their mental faculties, and who will make their knowledge functional and applicable, they need the type of education that will make them become men and women of culture. They should be exposed to the transformational effect of knowledge. Their education should be such that occurred in the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe (see Johnson, 2001:44), where literary humanism and a method of careful approach to textual issues evolved. Like a humanist, they should be encouraged to look at things objectively, to value the power of reason without necessarily rejecting the Godhead, to question the origins, authenticity, and credentials of texts – even sacred texts – to practice rational Islamism and see whether it is possible to evolve Islamic humanism, which has taken root in countries like Turkey, where the great Islamic scholar, Fethullah Gϋlen has emerged as a force for love and peace(see Gϋlen, 2010:31). They should be bombarded with literary texts of various shades, simplified if need be, so as to promote sympathy and camaraderie among them; literature should be made to train them in the habits of pluralistic thought and feeling, persuading them to acknowledge that more than their viewpoint exists...(see Eagleton, 2008:22).
Ile, Onyebuchi James is the Head of the Department of English Language and Literature, Nigerian Turkish Nile University.
Arnold, Matthew. 2004. Culture and Anarchy. London: Neeland Media.
——. 2002. Literature and Dogma. London: Fredonia Books.
Eagleton, Terry. 2008. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Gϋlen, M. Fethullah. 2010. Speech and Power of Expression: On Language, Esthetics, and Belief. (translated by Korkut Altay) New Jersey: Tughra Books.
Johnson, Paul. 2001. The Renaissance. London: Phoenix Press.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1975. Thus Spoke Zarathustra (translated by Hollingdale, R.J.) Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Penguin Books, 2003.