Last & Least
The Purpose of Writing
Dr Binoy Barman
Every writing has a purpose, explicit or implicit. Writing cannot go without purpose, as a blank shot. Some writings may apparently seem to be purposeless, but their purpose must be revealed in careful examination. The graphical symbols of writing have been developed to deliver meaning, essentially entwined with some purpose. Writing is accomplished with an effort, which entails some motive on part of the writer. To discover that motive is the reader's job. Whenever the reader is provided with a piece of writing, he/she reads it not only to decode the content but also the intent of the writer.
Since the emergence of writing system at the dawn of civilisation, the writers have tried to commit it to good purposes. The most important characteristic of writing is permanence, unlike speech, which is ephemeral. Writing is imprinted on material object and as long as that object exists, writing also exists. That is why writing is a better channel to transfer knowledge from one generation to another. It offers a great clue for the later generations of people to know the patterns of life in past. That is its archaeological value. We can trace the civilisations as long as the writing history allows. Without it we are just in the dark.
The writing history on earth is not older than five thousand years. Roman, Greek, Babylon, Assyria, Mesopotamia, Sumeria, and then? We cannot go further back. Why did the ancient people invent writing? (Of course, the writing symbols were not as we find them today; they were principally pictographic.) What was the necessity and what was the benefit? That is a basic question in order to understand the purposes of writing today. The necessity was probably to keep the royal records and the benefit was the records could be preserved for the progeny for a longer period. The writings we find in tablets, papyrus and rocks in archaeological sites inform us of some incidents relating to kings or noble persons.
In ancient times, the practice of writing was limited. After the invention of paper and pen, along with printing revolution and mass education, the practice became widespread. Now people write for multifarious purposes, from recording private thoughts to social events, creative endeavours to scientific experiments. Anybody who has the knowledge of letters utilise it for their own purposes, personal or professional. Writing now occupies the most significant part of human activities in intellectual arena. It has been the basis of modern civilisation in real sense of the term. That means, if writing is stopped, the present civilisation will collapse.
Writing is performed, individually, for the satisfaction of self or society. It may serve individual or group interests, often institutional or organisational. In any case, individual self is the source of writing; it springs from a person's skill and talent, occasionally conjoined by collaboration. It is the individuals who undertake to write from their personal impulses and perceptions. Now, why do the individuals write, after all? To seek the answer of this question is in fact the purpose of this writing that I have undertaken here.
When we use the word 'purpose', it may mean three things. Firstly, purpose may refer to the pragmatic concern felt by the writer. For example, one may prepare a shopping list; one may tally income and expense; or one may write a travel guide or telephone inventory. These are intended to be of practical help for the reader or writer himself. Secondly, purpose may refer to the thesis around which a piece of writing in academic pursuit revolves, as, for instance, I stated in the last sentence of the previous paragraph of this present article. Usually academic writings have this purpose. Thirdly, purpose may refer to the ulterior motive of the writer, which remains usually hidden in the text. It becomes clear from the pattern of argumentation the writer pursues. This kind of writing is usually a campaign and in it the writer is a campaigner. He/she preaches his/her beliefs through his/her writing. Creative writings, all prose and poetry, embedded in some social setting, show this propensity.
Therefore, we may divide the purposes of writing in three categories: 1. pragmatic purpose, 2. textual purpose, and 3. ideological purpose. Pragmatic purpose is the practical value of text that prompts the writer to write. Textual purpose is the writer's objective as stated in the thesis. Ideological purpose is the writer's motive in a writing enterprise; it is not stated explicitly in text per se. These three categories of purpose are most prevalent among the writers today.
Most of factual writings fall in the first category. They serve some practical purpose. When somebody is writing on 'how to be a millionaire' or 'how to perform first-aid', he/she is following the first purpose.
When rhetoricians classify the purposes of writing, they refer to the second category. According to them, the purposes of writing include: 1. to describe, 2. to express, and 3. to persuade. The writer may describe a person, place or thing, concrete or abstract. He/she may express his/her thoughts in his/her own way. This kind of writing is sometimes called expository writing. He/she may also try to argue for a particular point of view, rendering writing argumentative.
For some writers, writing is a philosophical concern and they write to preach their philosophy of life. They pass serious commentary on world affairs and make a conscious effort to change it. It is the job of the most committed writers, who take the role of politicians in a broad sense.
George Orwell was well aware of this particular role of the writers. In his essay “Why I Write” he claimed that he wrote for political reasons as it was the loftiest objective of writing. He loved something in society just as he hated other things. Through his writings, he expressed his love for democratic socialism and his hatred against totalitarianism. He says:
“It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one's political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one's aesthetic and intellectual integrity.”
Orwell was a political writer to the core. He wrote “Homage to Katalonia” and “Animal Farm” solely with political purpose. In the former he made his observation on Spanish War and in the latter he criticised the Russian socialist autocracy. But in all cases he maintained the artistic sublimity; he fused 'political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole,' with a good sense of humour, not abandoning seriousness in the least.
Orwell however mentions other purposes of writing at the philosophical level. These are: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm and historical impulse.
Joan Didion also echoed the views of George Orwell in her essay “Why I Write”. According to her, part of politics lies in expressing one's self through writing. She says, “In many ways writing is the act of saying 'I', of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It is an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions -- with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating -- but there's no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space.”
I do agree with George Orwell and Joan Didion that writing with commitment means writing with political ideology. But that 'political ideology' should not be taken in a restrictive sense. It must be taken in the broadest sense possible. It should include all beliefs that inspire the writer to put his/her pen on paper. The beliefs are for which the writer is ready to lay down his/her life. He/she acts like a possessed soul working through passionate hours in hard labour. He/she fights for a high cause through his/her writings. Collectively seen, writings for and against ideologies are accumulated on the dynamic table of time. Thus the array of writing puts forth reliable records of the conflicts of ideologies. In this sense, the ultimate purpose of writing is the development of civilisation, through the crosscurrents of contributions to the ever continuous project of the search for higher truth, which is realised in the fashion of Hegelian dialectic.
(Writer is Assistant Professor and Head, Department of English, Daffodil International University.)