The Definition of Literature

“How do you feel about literature having no definition?” 

The class was asked this question after a lively discussion of what we thought literature was.  Everyone wrote their own definition, then Dr. Pound read them all out loud.  The definitions tended to cluster into several groups, dealing with art, fiction, or so-called classics.  The definitions made clear the fact that even within our class we could not agree on what literature is; literature changes and evolves along with us.

So how do I feel about studying something that cannot be defined?  To be completely honest, it doesn’t really bother me.  I encountered this same problem a few years ago with psychology.  In psychology today, there is no unifying theory.  In the past, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis looked at all aspects of behaviour and thought.  But since that time, psychology has fractured.  Now many separate theories look at different aspects of behaviour and thought.  There is nothing to tie them all together except that all the researchers are studying the brain and behaviour.  They just all study it in (very) different ways.

When I was first told straight-up that psychology is a fractured thing, I was shocked.  How could I go home and tell my parents that I’ve essentially been studying a lie?  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this wasn’t true.  While there is large disagreement between researchers, everyone is still aware of what they are doing.  They are all trying to describe human behaviour, to figure out why we do the things we do.  There’s just disagreement on how to go about finding this knowledge.

The lack of a literature definition is much the same as the lack of a unifying psychology theory.  Literature is defined differently, depending on who is defining it.  There is disagreement between theorists, critics and writers what exactly constitutes literature, but everyone is still aware of what we are studying.  We’re all trying to study the stories, poems and letters that make up our written history.  We’re just disagreeing on where exactly to draw the line.

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