Imagining other worlds

Novels such as Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace are pathways to different worlds, says a University of Alberta professor.

But how, for instance, do fictional stories in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Lu Xun’s A Madman's Diary, or inOmar Khayyám’s poems in The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, help us better understand ourselves and improve humanity?

That’s among the questions Jonathan Hart, professor of English and Film Studies, explores in the recently published comparative literature study, Fictional and Historical Worlds. Hart says literature has the power to educate, enable imagination and free us from myths. 

Central to Hart’s work is the thought�anchored in “possible world theory”�that to fully understand humanity and experience our world, we should imagine other worlds.

“Possible world theory is a hypothesis on the different kinds of worlds that might exist, and it shows the relations among many things,” says Hart. “We get to measure what a world might be and how that helps us to negotiate or describe the world about us,” Hart says. “So we get into many thought experiments about how we could examine the economy and mathematical problems, and use fiction, drama and poetry to think through human problems.”

We arrive at the boundaries of those possible worlds when we’ve reached the depths of our imagination. But crucially, Hart says, those worlds are not fictional. Take the abolition of slavery as an example. Hart says that was possible partly because some religious people in England, where trade in human flesh thrived, were able to conceive a different world. 

“They found slavery repugnant. They were the minority, and they went against what a lot of people thought was right, and eventually they convinced the aristocracy. Part of that was through moral imagination.”

But because it’s impossible to think in a vacuum, the diversity of ideas in literature provides us with numerous platforms from which our imaginations can take flight, he says. “Literature helps us to see how other cultures look at things, and that gives us more fictional worlds, more types of possible worlds to measure our lives and our ways of thinking, to see our lives in relation, not only to our own culture but those of others. People can use literature to imagine a world that is different or maybe better than we have. The great works of literature help you think and feel, and give you the tools of language.”

It was because of literature in other languages that we today have access to multiple worlds, he says. “One of the great paradoxes is that the English-speaking world learned about the new world through other texts translated into English. To come to terms with Englishness in England, they have to deal with other cultures, and they have to translate them. That’s a great lesson for us now, when we think about the triumph of England and globalization.”

Hart says the translations were instrumental for people in the 16th century because they used the texts to criticize Europe as a corrupt society. “So that, in some ways, by looking at other cultures, they were able to use alternative ways of thinking to come to terms with what reality is,” he says. All of this today helps blur the assumed fine line between literature, especially fiction, and reality. Hart contends that line may not exist.

“There are fictions in law; corporations are legal fictions because they’re people in a certain way. Also, the Crown is the king or the queen, but it’s also an entity. They are made up of people; they’re not people, yet they have the rights of people, Hart says. “People can dismiss literature very easily, but they would not want to dismiss all the myths in politics, religion, law or even science.”

Our knowledge of humanity is in constant flux, he says, so it’s with imprudence that people hold onto ideas as absolute truths. But literature can help free us from such steadfast grip on myths. “You can free yourself from myths or understand them. Myths never go away. If you look at some of the myths in Greek drama, people are still using them with different names,” Hart says. “Political parties tell people stories. Some Greek myths were taken up by Freud and Shakespeare. Myth is part of us. We’re myth makers.” 

Fictional and Historical Worlds advocates for the importance of the humanities�such as philosophy, literature and history, he says. “These are important topics, because history, for instance, keeps asking questions about the past, literature about imagination, philosophy about reason and books of literary criticism can be about all three.” 

And while works by Cervantes, Achebe and Khayyám educate our imagination and give us a sense of what’s possible, what’s fictional and what’s real, he says, literature also enables us to make important distinctions. “It helps us to think about our past, present and future. Literature is an act of imagination,” Hart says.

“Like biodiversity, the more cultures and languages, the more possible and fictional worlds we have, the more we learn about reality in this world. We have to look into ourselves and say this is what we were but this is what we could be. The more we educate ourselves, the less solid the world is.”