El Supplente (The Substitute) and What is Literature For?

I resurface on this blog after an eternity. But I saw a film recently that made me want to sit up and write. Since many months, and through the course of my own teaching, I have felt that literature as a discipline and the humanities more generally are dying a slow death. This may be a controversial statement and there could be many to contest it, but the way we read and consume literature is not the same as we used to even a decade back. With the advent of the Kindle and social media and ubiquitous gadgets and the insta culture, we no longer have the leisure or the capacity to read, to savour an experience and to even tell or listen to stories the way we used to. Students just don’t read anymore. This has been extensively written about in the US and maybe here in India reading is not that easily done away with but certainly one sees a change in attention spans. But my concern here is not only reading but specifically the role of literature as a discipline. It seems to me that now more than ever we are called to justify its purpose in a social environment and culture where it appears to be increasingly obsolete.

In one of the scenes of the Diego Lerman-directed Argentinian film El Supplente (The Substitute, 2022), a sophisticated literature professor Lucio finds himself in the daunting task of teaching a class of disinterested and irreverent students in dusty, suburban Buenos Aries. “What is literature for?” He asks his students on his first day of class. “To make us sleep” says one adolescent, while another dozes at the back. “I don’t read” confesses another. “To tell stories.” “Literature is of no use to us.” The look on the professor’s face tells us how difficult it is for him to circle back to a question that he has taken for granted in his intellectual pursuits. His plight in bridging this gap also becomes the journey that he embarks on in connecting with his students and understanding the context of their difficult lives- lives that are caught in the crossfire of state violence and local druglords (reminiscent of Freedom Writers in so many ways). “What is literature for” seems even more difficult to answer when schools are unsafe spaces, where police machinery can barge in to do drug checks and arrest minors without following protocols of minor rights, where hospitals are unsafe and patients who seemed to be doing well, mysteriously deteriorate and even die. What use of is literature in places wired for survival, surveillance and violence? Can one have the leisure to sit and read and talk about feelings? To talk about the nuances of paradox, metaphor and simile? To discuss genres, styles and canon? It seems a tasteless luxury, an outlandish hobby.

Although I am fortunate enough to not face the perilous environment of Lucio and his students, the question “What is literature for”? is still not easily answered. More so, when people still look for tangible results, concrete life-changing metrics and quantifiable returns. Literature is of no use in that sense. Justifying the discipline at the level of an educational set-up especially when competing with other quantifiable disciplines is one thing. But increasingly one finds that there is a dissociation between discipline and the values that were once taken for granted to be a part of it. Literature was for building character, for cultivating human values and empathy, for understanding the human condition in its beauty and terror, for making sense of one’s own journey, for understanding the frailty of human morality, the violence of the human heart and mind. To understand the expanse of that endeavour, required if not leisure at least deliberate thought, pause and reflection. This was certainly not a luxury. It was the characteristic of an inquisitive and balanced mind. But today being called to justify the purpose of this discipline speaks both of the erosion of those values as well as the changing cultures of intellect and what we hold in prestige today.

As Lucio becomes more and more a part of his community, shares the grief of losing his father, saves one of his students from a druglord, he becomes less interested in asking his students what literature is for. Instead in one of the final scenes, he brings a chart with the figure of the human body and asks the students to identify different parts. Once they do that, he points: “Now show me where the soul is” The students reply that it is not visible. “When we use phrases like ‘It hurts my soul’ what do we mean?” asks the professor. “It hurts in places you cannot see.” says one student. “that feeling is beyond pain,” offers another. “It hurts me to pieces.” “I love you with my soul.” “It is underlying, inexplicable.” The dozing kid is wide awake now. The question ‘What is literature for?’ is suddenly redundant.

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