The medium specificity of literature makes it unique in its ability to convey complex psychological insight through ideas, not only via inner narratives, but the non-tangible dimensionality of description language allows. I’ve identified several areas in which the uniqueness of literature can lay its claim. Literature’s status of an art form makes it part of a wider range of human activities that compose our species specificity — or, rather, a uniquely human impulse.
Even if a picture can be worth 1,000 words, words can describe intangible things that cannot be portrayed to others through other media: ideas, feelings, subtext. Language is the codification of thought through mutually intelligible symbols, thus the transmission of the nuances of the written word communicates thought in a means unique unto itself.
The only boundary set for a work of creative fiction is the limits of language itself, which writers James Joyce, with Finnegan’s Wake, stretch almost to a point of absurdity.
“The most sublime labour of poetry is to give sense and passion to insensate things.”
— G. Vico, The New Science XXXVII
While language in everyday usage most often labels actual actions and objects and their characteristics (metaphors being a key exception), it also brings the possibility to express things not present, or even abstract ideas and unapparent emotional response.
Reading requires a conscious buy-in on the part of the reader. It is not a medium that can be enjoyed passively, like television or movies or pictures, because it requires the focus and concentration of the reader to interpret its language, as well as a certain degree of projection of their own perspectives as they interpret and imagine the events of the story. Since the reader has to ‘work’ to construct their own unique version of the world encoded in the book’s pages, there’s a degree of variability in their interpretation, dependent on their concentration and comprehension. Each reader has a unique interactive experience depending on their own minds, their imaginative capabilities, past experience, and openness to the imagined worlds described in the text.
“Every man’s memory is his private literature.”
― Aldous Huxley
Connecting to themes and motifs, even real life characters and events, integrates the literature with the collective cultural body-at-large, so readers may not only recognize parts of themselves as individuals in the text, but projections of their society, their context for existence, as well. Thus the literature can be used as an existential tool for sorting through that context, the as the figure deconstructs his background. While the character identification itself isn’t limited to the literary medium, the internal depth of written language lends itself to a psychological extreme of identification as the reader is not only presented with a narrative but is forced to process it: he isn’t seeing it as a third person, like the viewer of a movie, but connecting with his own mental imagery constructs the scenes himself.
Empathy and Identification
Delving into fiction is a particularly human experience: getting inside the mind and lives of others, a sort of harmless voyeurism in which the peeping can lead to divergent effects. Even fiction is still an exercise of that capacity of the mind, to think outside one’s direct life, experience and relate to an ‘other’. Lack of identification may be due to a lack of comprehension, personal connection with characters, or lack of cultural or experiential context for interpreting the plot or even imagining the setting.
The danger, and perhaps inevitability, of such interactions is that the reader projects the content back on their own life, ensconcing themselves in a fantasy. The same identification that allows them to connect with characters may provoke comparisons between themselves and the figures, creating unrealistic expectations.
As long as powers of distinction stay acute, the identification prices can aid in artistic distancing as a reader can use the fictive world as a template for their own context providing a similar effect of self interpretation as the writer, the content created herself, uses the story as a vector for her own thoughts — what may have originated as a frenzy becomes tamped down by the construct of language and the need to ground such language in a way understandable to potential readers.
Using stories and characters as a frame, a lens to examine one’s own life and reality, projecting value, associations, emotional attachment, and extracting information, new ideas. For the writer this includes the very cathartic nature of the creative process, spilling their thoughts upon the page. For the reader, the examination takes place through projection between self and the fictive world, and identification with characters (empathy). Thus, assuming reader comprehension, interpretation can lead to projection, then to identification, and reflection turned back upon the reader herself.
“Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man. ”
― Martin Heidegger
Thus depending on how it’s used by the author or reader, literature can function as an external world in and of itself, a replacement for social interactions, a sort of hyperreality; a tool for inner deliberation by the individual via projection and reflection; and as an agent of distortion for distancing from the empirical self and his or her world, the crafting of an aesthetic phenomenon.
The “I” in Literature
Psychological and emotional identification with characters can develop not only in the interaction between a reader and literature, but a viewer and a movie, television show, or theater production. The development of Western literature shows a clear lineage between how people viewed themselves and their relationship with society, and how such change is reflected in the choice and content of literary forms.
Literature is an indicator of the understanding of the self throughout history. The conception of transmitting a life through story over went various evolutions before arriving at this most “self” centered art form. The progression of the history of literature shows that the art form’s development mirrored the relationship between society and individual, and the individual and their ritualized form of communication at the time. In times of more communal living, with primarily oral communication, and a strong importance on the institutional bonds of family and religion, fictions are presented as epic myths often with spiritual significance: from Homer’s tales in Greek times, to the Mahabharata in India and the Bible in Christian countries. In these stories, action is inflicted as a result of forces often external to the human actors: a top-down flow, from the gods down to the kings, the kings to the common man.
As the concept of the “I” took hold, novels, as often realistic portrayals of the individual experience with psychological imperative, came into vogue, with the mere humans becoming cognizant forces shaping the plot progression. The romantic lyricism of poetry became less popular in favor of relatable tales portraying a varied spectrum of lives. Realism bloomed as the empirical sciences took hold, only to be succeeded by the more internal, psychological fiction in the 20th century; once a basic, objective grip of the world was established, we turned inwards. The existence of selfhood permitted the development of character-based narratives in which actors are causing events to occur as opposed to plot-based narratives in which events happen to characters, thus the more internal, individual appeal. Issues such as alienation from society and a search for selfhood became themes, mirroring the issues of selfhood developing in the real world, in their associated historical stages.
The admittedly subjective nature of Modern and Postmodern literature poke holes in assumptions about the objective world, reflecting the reaction against the formal rationalism that was revealed while the shadow of religious projections withdrew and a resulting belief that we could see the world as objective, empirical actors was also seen as untenable. The existential development also brought psychological backdrops allowing perspective on the character’s life (e.g. the stream-of-consciousness of Virginia Woolf), emphasizing inner life) instead of purely third-person, objective framing of a story, as we know — through knowing ourselves — doesn’t exist in actuality. And onward the reflections continue with epics like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest mirroring the postmodern frenzy (drugs, entertainment, etc.) of modern-day life.