Discourse: Literature as the Bridge for the Unity of Humanity ~ Emman Usman Shehu

 A significant role of literature is that it enables us “make sense of our  experiences…(and at the same time allows us) assign meaning and value to our lives.” 1  One way this has happened is by giving man the ability to create a story-world.

That story-world has been with mankind from the beginning of creation as an oral art before evolving into the textual format. The story-world of course is that universe which is a representation of the place where the human exists. It is not an Edenic place because man no longer lives in that Garden of perfection that has been long lost.

In the 17th Century, the English Poet John Milton wrote an Epic Poem called Paradise Lost. Milton based the ten-part poem  “on the biblical story of the Fall of Man: the temptation of Adam and Eve by the fallen angel Satan and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.” 2 Of course that represents a certain worldview.

This is what literature also does, it represents a worldview. But whatever the worldview that manifests, there is a common denominator that the world is wracked by a plethora of divisions. Literature also seems to suggest that a way out of this is some kind of regaining of that lost paradise, through the unity of humanity. “Belief in the unity of mankind is a very ancient one. From earliest times there have been those who have recognized that men’s nature, needs and destiny are alike and demand common expression.” 3

Indeed our various religions, which themselves are preserved in texts that are a literature of some sort, echo the belief in the unity of humanity or mankind. This is a central teaching of the Baha’i faith,  “that since all humans have been created in the image of God, God does not make any distinction between people regardless of race or colour.  Thus, because all humans have been created equal, they all require equal opportunities and treatment. Thus the Bahá'í view promotes the unity of humanity, and that people's vision should be world-embracing and that people should love the whole world rather than just their nation.  The teaching, however, does not equal unity with uniformity, but instead the Bahá'í writings advocate for the principle of unity in diversity where the variety in the human race is valued.”4

The faith structure of Islam includes the belief of human unity. Thus it is emphatically stated “that there only One God who created all. We are asked to believe in all of the Prophets and not to prefer one Prophet above others in terms of respect. We are asked to believe in the earlier scriptures despite God’s criticism of people for changing those scriptures (Qur'an 2:285). A Muslim who does not believe in the whole set of these principles is not considered a believer by God (Qur'an 4: 136).” 5

The belief in human unity is also affirmed in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This is strongly manifested in the New Testament that, “whatever their differences, men are of one blood, one stock, all of them children of the same father and intended for life in community under the Lordship of Christ.”6
Creation myths also show a great degree of human similarities and by extension the possibility of human unity. Mythologists have applied various schemes to classify creation myths found throughout human cultures. Religion professor Mircea Eliade and his colleague Charles Long developed a classification based on some common motifs that reappear in stories the world over. The classification identifies five basic types:
·         Creation ex nihilo in which the creation is through the thought, word, dream or bodily secretions of a divine being.
·         Earth diver creation in which a diver, usually a bird or amphibian sent by a creator, plunges to the seabed through a primordial ocean to bring up sand or mud which develops into a terrestrial world.
·         Emergence myths in which progenitors pass through a series of worlds and metamorphoses until reaching the present world.
·         Creation by the dismemberment of a primordial being.
·         Creation by the splitting or ordering of a primordial unity such as the cracking of a cosmic egg or a bringing order from chaos. 7

It is therefore no surprise that universalism has emerged as a theory spanning philosophy, economics, religion, law, and literature. Its application in literature, for instance, sometimes assists us to recognize the existence of global humanity. For instance, Shuixiang Peng in his article “Individualism and Universalism in Pound’s Poetics” notes: “Ezra Pound has long pursued individualism in his poetics, both in his translation and creation of poems. Yet he has also been interpreted as a Universalist. As an individual, Pound’s strategy is to attain an identity of the best poet through accomplishment that is personal, visible and measurable. 

Universalism is realized by merging his social responsibility and world humanities into his art conception of poems based on the interaction of different cultural traditions aesthetically and socially. The accommodation and confrontation between individualism and universalism in the interpretation of his work reflects the consistency and the conflict both within his thought and more significantly, within the vision of world-humanity. Pound’s struggle for his pursuit of poetics reveals a picture of a solemn and stirring attempt to balance the totalism of a poet and the actualization of an ideal society.” 8

The big question though is can literature enable the unity of humanity? Our world remains crisis torn at many levels and as writers we reflect these situations in our story-world regardless of the genre. Yet as writers, literature enables us to engage and reflect through one of the most human attribute, language.  Thus, according to Tabish Khair “by thinking imaginatively about issues and problems and differences, (literature) enables us to find options and solutions that might be closed to purely instrumental or logical thinking. 

Moreover, literature has always been highly porous. Look at the way stories have traveled across cultures and, later, nations. Right from the beginning, from the ancient epics, from Panchatantra and Aesop’s Fables, downwards to our age, stories and literature in general do not respect political or social borders. In that sense too, they signify the fact that despite all our differences we inhabit one world.” 9

Until that day when we can find the magical formula to regain our lost paradise, literature is the bridge towards the unity of humanity. Shamini Flint – author of the Inspector Singh series of detective novels, puts it this way: “Once in a while, when I receive a postcard about one of my books from somewhere distant, I am convinced we are one people—all six billion plus of us. Either way, stories bind us. To the extent we are different, they are a bridge between worlds, a form of communication, of explanation, a plea for understanding. Even more importantly, what we have in common is expressed in the universal themes within stories … love, death, brotherhood (and taxes?).” 10

2.        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradise_Lost
3.        Ernest A. Payne,   The Unity Of Mankind  https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bq/25-1_002.pdf
5.        https://www.soundvision.com/article/the-lost-ideals-of-human-unity-in-islam
6.        Payne
8.        Shuixiang PENG Individualism and Universalism in Pound’s Poetics, http://www.cscanada.net/index.php/sll/article/view/6964
9.        Tabish Khair in “How Does  Literature Unite The World”, http://goodbooksguide.blogspot.com/2009/09/how-does-literature-unite-world.html
10.     Shamini Flint in “How Does  Literature Unite The World”, http://goodbooksguide.blogspot.com/2009/09/how-does-literature-unite-world.html


     Emman Usman Shehu is the editor of Cavalcade and Dugwe and Founder of Abuja Writers Forum.