What Makes Great Literature Great?

What makes great literature great? Why do some short stories, plays and novels strike a universal chord and impart relevant and meaningful wisdom hundreds or even thousands of years later?

According to a new book on literature and language, it all comes down to the consciousness of the writer. If the writer is able to fathom the depths of silence within herself, she can convey that depth of wisdom to others through her writing.

As co-editors of the The Flow of Consciousness: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on Literature and Language, two former literature professors from Maharishi University of Management, Rhoda Orme-Johnson, Ph.D., and Susan Andersen, Ph.D., edited transcripts of talks by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the subject of literature and language.

In the introduction to the book, Dr. Orme-Johnson explains that the essential force of literature lies in the purity of the consciousness of the writer who is able to see the ocean in a drop — to see the totality of life in every particle of creation. The British poet William Blake described this poetic vision when he wrote, “To see a world in a grain of sand/and a heaven in a wild flower,/hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/and Eternity in an hour.”

It’s not a coincidence that many of the greatest poets and writers of all time have reported transcendental experiences in which they fathomed the depths of silence of their own minds, or saw the unity and interconnectedness of all things.

Often, though, these great writers and poets were not able to repeat the experience. The American poet Emily Dickenson captured the frustration of being shut out by the treasures of one’s own soul in the following poem.

The Soul selects her own Society

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

Fortunately for the writer today, the Transcendental Meditation technique makes it possible to experience the silence of her own mind and fathom the depth of her own consciousness every day. Even if someone doesn’t start out being a literary genius, the experience of transcending regularly will expand an author’s conscious thinking capacity, refine the emotions and improve her skill as a writer.

Dr. Orme-Johnson describes this phenomenon in her introduction: “‘When the mind is deep in silence within, and the impulse of speech is lively,’ Maharishi observes, then the aspects of a piece of writing ‘all come together in a very beautiful, connected manner if there is silence deep within.’ This is the key to Maharishi’s vision of the creative process.”

And it’s not only the writer who benefits from developing her consciousness, but the reader also. When the reader is experiencing a more expanded state of awareness during the practice of Transcendental Meditation, she can better fathom the wisdom and expansive thinking conveyed in great literature.

“As consciousness becomes clearer, it will become more flexible, and as consciousness becomes more flexible, more fluid, it will be able to comprehend wider horizons of all the mechanics that structure a literary piece,” explains Dr. Orme-Johnson.

She continues, “As teachers we can teach the student how to analyze, compare, and evaluate literature. But as Maharishi stated, ‘it is the students’ awareness at the time that they read a passage that is important . . . . they will fathom so many more values and be able to do this in a very natural way, in a very relaxed way, when their consciousness is pure, . . . . very simple, very natural.”

Certainly we’ve all experienced this phenomenon. If you’re feeling drowsy or dull, it doesn’t matter how profound the literature is, it goes over your head. You may even drift off to sleep in the middle of a dazzling discourse.

Yet if you’re feeling fresh and your mind is clear, when you sit down to read a work of great literature, the words go deep into your psyche and you may experience an “aha” moment that can change your life.

This is true with any field of study. Waking up to your own mind is the most rewarding experience you can have — as a writer, a reader or a student of life.

About the Author

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

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