As Graham Hough in his famous book An Essay on
Criticism (1966: a, pp 10 & 14) has rightly observed, there are
two categories ofliterary theories namely:
(a) moral theories, i.e those that are concerned primarily with
what literature is for; and
(b) formal theories, i.e. those that are concerned primarily with
what it is..
The first see literature as part of human activity in general while
the other see literature as a self-contained activity. However, the
two types are not mutually exclusive; a dialogue in some sense
occurs between them.
The present lecture relates mainly to (a) above. It is concerned
primarily with what Yoniba literature, an art form, is for.
Sufficient illustrations are taken from aspects of Yoruba
literature as a token of those aspects which divine providence
has helped me to have studied and appreciated. These include
(a) Ese Ifa (Ifa literary corpus),
(b) Orin agbe (agbe art)
( c) Owe (Proverbs) and
(d) Fagunwa's Novels.
Now, scholars, the world over, have made many important
points in favour of the utilitarian view of literature. For our
purpose, however, highlights of the main points will do.
Eliot, in his famous work, On Poetry and Poets (1957: pp
15-23) has written on the social functions of poetry - both
general and particular functions. Some early runes and chants
had very practical magical purposes - to avert the evil eye, to
cure some disease, or to propitiate some demon ... The early
forms of epic and saga may have transmitted what was held to
be history before it survived for communal entertainment only
(p.5). Didactic may mean "conveying information", or ...
"giving moral instruction, ... or something which comprehends
both (p.I6) Dramatic poetry has a social function ... peculiar to
itself: the making of an immediate, collective impression upon a
large number of people gathered together (p.I7). "Poetry is to
give pleasure, ... and ... there is always the communication of
some 'new' experience, or some fresh understanding of the
familiar, or the expression of something we have experienced
but have no words for, which enlarges or refines our
sensibility". (p.I 7)
Wellek and Warren (1963: pp 30 - 32), writing on the functions
of literature, rightly observe that, "poetry is sweet and useful."
(p.30). To them the pleasure of literature... is not one
preference among a long list of possible pleasures but is a
'higher pleasure' because pleasure is a higher kind of activity,
i.e. non-acquisitive contemplation." (p.3I). They also rightly
note that "poetry is a form of knowledge." (p.32)
For Finnegan (1977: 270), "to speak of 'literature' in
general terms can be misleading, whether or not it is opposed to
another supposed entity termed "society". For what is
interesting and significant is not, most often, something called
'literature' but rather what people do: the way they act within a
literary context, the social conventions connected with literary
activity which they observe and manipulate, the different uses
to which they can put literary formulations - literature, in fact,
conceived as social action by people rather than as a static
entity in its own right.
According to Plekhanov (19157: pp 5-6), Chernyshevsky
(1906:pp 33-34) wrote as follows in one of his earliest critical
"The idea of 'art' for art's sake' is as strange in our
times as 'wealth for wealth's sake', 'science for
science's sake', and so forth. All human activiti
must serve mankind if they are not to remain
useless and idle occupations. Wealth exists in order
that man may benefit by it, science exists in order
to be man's guide; art, too, must serve some useful
purpose and not fruitless pleasure." In
Chemyshevsky's opinion, the value of the arts, and
especially, of "the most serious of them", poetry, is
determined by the sum of knowledge they
disseminate in society. He says, "Art, or it would
be better to say poetry... spreads among the mass
of the reading public an enormous amount of
knowledge and, what is still more important,
familiarizes them with the concepts worked out by
science - such is poetry's great purpose in life."
Plekhanov goes on to say that, "in the opinion of
Chemyshevsky and his disciple, Dobrolyubov, the function of
art was indeed, to reproduce life and to pass judgment on its
Plekhanov explains further in a footnote (p6. footnote**)
that this opinion was closely related to the views formulated by
Belinsky in his article, "A view of Russian Literature of 1847,"
where Belinsky wrote:
"The highest and most sacred interest of society is its
own welfare, equally extended to each of its
members. The road to this welfare is consciousness,
and art can promote consciousness no less than
science. Here science and art are equally
indispensable, and neither science can replace art nor
art replace science. But art can develop man's
knowledge only by passing judgement on the
phenomena of life."
The argument that art, like any other activity, is purposeful
cannot but be valid - more so as it does not deny the aesthetic
value of art. And Belinsky's observation that "art can promote
consciousness no less than science" is reassuring to all those
who are involved in the production' and consumption of art.
Belinsky's view, that the road to the welfare which society
desires is consciousness, agrees with the definition of art by
Marx and Engels as "one form of social consciousness". And
with its corollary "that the reasons for its (art's) changes should
be sought in the social existence of men." (Marx and Engels
1976:p 17 Preface by Krylov). Krylov explains further in his
"Marx and Engels revealed the social nature
of art and its development in the course of
history and showed that in a society with
class antagonisms it was influenced by class
contradictions and by the politics and
ideologies of particular classes. (loc;.cit).
Eagleton (1976:p viii) thus rightly defines Marxist Criticism
as"part of a larger body of theoretical analysis which aims to
understand ideologies - the ideas, values and feelings by which
men experience their societies at various times. And certain of
those ideas, values and feelings are available to us only in
and he finallysummarizesits value as he writes:
"To understand ideologies is to understand
both the past and the present more deeply;
and such understanding contributes to our
liberation". (loc. cit.)
Eagleton's thesis here not only applies to literature but also to
history. This theoretical perspective is therefore invaluable as it
points to an assured means of achieving (through literary art) serenity
in the face of the vicissitudes of life. Neither religion nor science can
do more for human beings in their' continuous Struggle for freedom
from all forms of enslavement of human beings by human beings, e.g.
fear, exploitation, poverty and misery.
Having looked at literature critically, Eagleton (1983:22)
declares in his celebrated work on literary theory thus:
"To speak of 'literature and ideology' as two
separate phenomena which can be interrelated
is... in one sense, quite unnecessary.
Literature, in the meaning of the word we
have inherited is an ideology. It has the most
intimate relations to questions of social
To substantiate this point, he devotes the next thirty-one pages of
the book to a detailed explanation of how English Literature has
been changing with the English ruling class. He has rightly
observed, "like religion, literature works' primarily by emotion
and experience and. so was admirably well-fitted to carry through
the ideological task which religion left off." (p.26). Indirectly,
literature has been. communicating ideological dogmas disguised
as. timeless truths, "thus distracting the masses from their
immediate commitments, nurturing in them a spirit of tolerance
and generosity, and so ensuring the survival of private property."
Eagleton rightly ends the fascinating book with the following allegory:'
"We know that the lion is stronger than the
lion-tamer, and so does the lion-tamer. The
problem is that the lion does not know it. It is
not out of the question that the death of
literature may help the lion to awaken."
The 'lion-tamer' in this allegory represents the class of exploiters
in modem capitalist society while the 'lion' represents the
exploited class. The 'pill' of the class of exploiters' ideology is
being sweetened by the 'sugar' of literature. It is true that the
death of literature may help the exploited class to awaken. But
can literature die?
The answer to this question appears to be an emphatic
'No'. Eagleton thus rightly reminds us that:
"Literature... is vitally engaged with the
living situations of men and women: it is
concrete rather than abstract, displays life in
all its variousness, and rejects barren
conceptual enquiry for the feel and taste of
what it is to be alive." (p.16).
The aspects of Yoruba literature under study bare out most of the
issues raised above. The following three sections illustrate this
SSA, R (2021). APPRECIATING THE U.IEl OF LITERATURE: A YORUBA EXAMPLE .,~ , ' -. Afribary.com: Retrieved May 10, 2021, from https://afribary.com/works/appreciating-the-u-iel-of-literature-a-yoruba-example
Research, SSA. "APPRECIATING THE U.IEl OF LITERATURE: A YORUBA EXAMPLE .,~ , ' -" Afribary.com. Afribary.com, 02 May. 2021, https://afribary.com/works/appreciating-the-u-iel-of-literature-a-yoruba-example . Accessed 10 May. 2021.
Research, SSA. "APPRECIATING THE U.IEl OF LITERATURE: A YORUBA EXAMPLE .,~ , ' -". Afribary.com, Afribary.com, 02 May. 2021. Web. 10 May. 2021. < https://afribary.com/works/appreciating-the-u-iel-of-literature-a-yoruba-example >.
Research, SSA. "APPRECIATING THE U.IEl OF LITERATURE: A YORUBA EXAMPLE .,~ , ' -" Afribary.com (2021). Accessed May 10, 2021. https://afribary.com/works/appreciating-the-u-iel-of-literature-a-yoruba-example