I came to a realisation this morning whilst queuing in traffic on a rail replacement bus somewhere in the middle of the fens; literature is important because it forces us to question our identity, our place in the world, how our history is shaped and why the search for self unity is essentially futile.
There is no origin. It is not meaningful to speak of our coming from a particular place and time. Instinctively we trace our origin to our birth but this is a falsehood; even before we are born, we are shaped by the personalities of our parents and what they were like when they were young. We are essentially recycled beings in the same way that language and words are continually recycled into new meanings. It is impossible to get behind language as we can only communicate through words; even actions only make sense within our system of signifiers. Meaning is constantly deferred from sign to sign; everything only makes sense in relation to everything else. Nothing is of intrinsic transcendental meaning as such a meaning would only have meaning when compared to something else. Thus we are left with a system of signs which are represented through language. It is impossible for us to remember a time before language, before words, to take ourselves back to the mindset of a baby experiencing the world at a much closer – more ‘real’ - distance. When we acquire language we bring our baggage to it, our own personal emotional connotations, that frequently result in confusion when the same word may mean a different thing to two different people. For example, if I said that my rail replacement bus was purple, you may bring to that a memory of lilac and lavender floating in the breeze in a childhood garden, and assume that the colour was calming. Someone else may associate purple with bruising, perhaps from unpleasant childhood memories of their own, and assume that the bus had a threatening atmosphere. In reality, it was quite a nauseating shade of plum which is not very nice at 8am, although it did remind me of royal robes (in itself quite ironic as I doubt a Persian prince would travel via stagecoach.)
We attempt to define ourselves, our identities, through so many things: our names, gender, where we grew up, which school we went to, which books we read, which TV programmes we like, which profession we belong to. Ultimately, we are searching for the essence that makes the I ‘I,’ unique to anyone else. Perhaps this too is a fallacy; some parts of our being will always be parts of those people who shaped our formative years. Literature, through portraying this struggle with self identity and language, forces us to constantly question everything. Perhaps the answer lies in Austen’s philosophy; it is what we do that makes us who we are, not how we feel. Literature forces us to question; in life, we must act!