Symbiosis International University Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts

Literary Imagination and The World

 Brief Overview 

The relationship of literature to life—its truth-value and its ethical implications—has been debated in different cultural and historical contexts. Plato famously, or infamously, said he would banish poets from his ideal republic. Shelley, in 19th century England, called poets “unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Some ancient Indian theorists compared the aesthetic experience to the experience of the divine. Major liberal arts curricula encourage students to include literary and aesthetic studies in their programs, based on a belief in the power of literature to expand the students’ vision and develop their sensitivity. (The figure of the Nazi officer, listening to Beethoven between torture sessions he conducts, has been cited as a counterexample to those who would attribute powers of positive transformation to the arts.)
In the past few decades, literary critics and theorists have examined ways in which the representation of women and subjugated peoples in literary texts has legitimized and perpetuated oppressive and divisive tendencies in society.


With this debate in mind, the course intends to explore the potential of the literary/aesthetic mode to give us glimpses of alternatives to power-centric, divisive, violent modes of living with ourselves, others, and the natural world.
-We shall do this by

  1. reading a range of literary texts (and some works of visual art and musical renderings of literary texts) : fairy tales, fables, parables, and scripture, as well as classic works of different genres from culturally and linguistically diverse traditions
  2. reading these in relation to certain issues / problems / crises we face in our world today e.g. ecological, economic
  3. tracing parallels in approaches to these problems, found in thinkers like deep ecologists, alternative economists and political or social thinkers e.g. what does deep ecology have in common with recurrent patterns in fairy/folk tales?
  4. seeking conceptual and theoretical support for our reading, from literary critics and theoreticians, (ancient, modern and contemporary). We shall look at theories of literary language and representation.
  5. seeking greater fairness and honesty in our study by reading those critics who have shown how both popular literature and the classics have been complicit in subjugation and oppression based on gender, race, species, etc.
  6. attempting to arrive at criteria for literary/artistic judgement.

Recurrent themes patterns in various literatures will form the structure of our course

e.g. the nemesis, retribution, that follows hubris, excessive pride, in both fairy tales and classical Greek drama; the question of the hero/ine—what is heroism? In what sense is the woman saint-poet (Mira, Janabai, Hildegard, Rabia) a heroine?; universality and particularity (the possibility of the cultural particularity of literature providing the medium for universal aesthetic experience)

will be explored in the context of the central concerns of this course.

 Course Objectives 

To develop sensitivity to, as well as understanding and appreciation of, the ways in which literature in particular (and the arts in general) represents issues/problems (social, political, ecological, etc.) through its characteristic aesthetic mode.
To compare the above with more discursive disciplines and, through this comparison, to acquire more complex approaches and attitudes to these issues.
To develop understanding and appreciation of literature and the arts in a more general way, especially to understand the central role of art in cultures and communities—both its positive and negative possibilities.
To respond to beauty in literature, to go beyond moralistic or rationalistic reduction.
To understand and accept ambiguity in the arts and in life.
To form aesthetic judgments and move towards formulating criteria for this.
To complement discursive disciplines by developing faculties beyond the rational (emotional, imaginative, etc.) in a more conscious and critical way.

 Teaching Methodology 

Class discussion of poems, stories, excerpts from larger works, and clips of film versions of texts

  • in the context of our exploration of social, economic problems/issues
  • conducted in the light of concepts, theories, and critical approaches explained through lectures

Written and oral responses to texts/issues, short research projects (in groups or individually) relating literary texts to specific issues/theories—topics chosen by students; final assessment will test skills in interpretation, response and making connections between literature and life problems/issue