Because written literature is capable of being transmitted from the person who wrote it across generations, it acquires the status of communal wisdom simply by being recorded. Yet there are limitations to the applicability of such stories, and to a certain degree wisdom consists in knowing that there are limitations to the theoretical knowledge one can acquire in this way, or human error can misinterpret the text. I would like to look at the way in which three texts -- one ancient (by Rumi) and two modern (by Siije and Soyinka) -- offer wisdom at the same time that they suggest limits to our own knowledge, and limits to the applicability of any such wisdom.
The poems of Rumi, by virtue of their age, seem almost to define the way by which wisdom can be transmitted in literature, but also can acknowledge its own limits. One particular lyric from The Essential Rumi encapsulates this paradox nicely, and I would like to examine it more closely. The lyric in question reads as follows:
This piece of food cannot be eaten, nor this bit of wisdom found by looking.
There is a secret core in everyone not even Gabriel can know by trying to know. (Rumi 72)
This seems to be in the same basic genre as the Old Testament's Book of Ecclesiastes: a work of wisdom literature that specifically warns against overreliance on such wisdom literature. The central metaphor to this epigram compares the "bit of wisdom" that cannot be "found by looking" to a "piece of food" that "cannot be eaten." This suggests a whole wealth of associations -- particularly to religious food prohibitions, such as those in the Old Testament and indeed the Koran. Anthropologists have yet to discover a human culture which eats every available source of protein in its environment: the food prohibitions that are familiar to westerners through religion are universal through cultures everywhere. To a certain degree, the inaccessibility of wisdom here is troped as the inaccessibility of prohibited food, or possibly spoiled food. The basic purpose of the verse, though, is to set limits to the reader's attempt to find meaning: it warns us that even an angelic intelligence like that of Gabriel is capable of comprehending any person in full.
Coming down to modern times, we can see two examples from contemporary world literature in which this same topos, in which a work of wisdom literature warns of over-reliance upon its tenets at the same time that it offers its own applicability, playing out differently in modern adaptation. Both Siije's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman dramatize twentieth-century scenarios: Siije's novel takes place during Chairman Mao's "Cultural Revolution" in China in the later twentieth century, and Soyinka's ritual drama takes place during the British colonial occupation of Nigeria. Yet to a certain degree each writer incorporates the techniques of wisdom literature in order to demarcate limits to the way in which readers may actually apply such wisdom. We may see this very clearly in Siije's novel, which is (to a certain extent) a novel about the construction and the reading of stories. The novel's narrator will say relatively early in the work that "The only thing Luo was really good at was telling stories. A pleasing talent to be sure, but a marginal one, with little future in it. Modern man has moved beyond the age of the Thousand-and-One-Nights, and modern societies everywhere, whether socialist or capitalist, have done away with the old storytellers -- more's the pity" (Siije 18). This already raises questions in the reader's mind about the value of such storytelling: the narrator concedes it is "pleasing" (which defines literature as a form of entertainment or escapism) but there is faint irony in his sense that "modern man has moved beyond." What is the person reading that sentence for the first time to then think of Siije's novel? It is a modest way of asking the reader to understand what it is that is customarily found in stories, especially the oral tradition. The narrator will later note that, when he first reads the Balzac novel that plays…