Wole Soyinka was on BBC World a few days ago. The great Nigerian writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature spoke about fanaticism from an informed layman’s perspective. His views were common sense, with reasoning about the recent abduction of over two hundred girls from a boarding school by an Islamist group in remote north-east Nigeria. Listening to Soyinka, the importance of using common sense when considering difficult issues became clear. We should include a vast spectrum of human feelings and interpretation of reality when analyzing terrorist and other outrageous actions – as well as quite ordinary situations. The perpetrators, as we would call them, may even have genuine reason for their feelings, whether it is marginalization and humiliation, or it is their way of seeking recognition and power for themselves and others. We can easily agree that their means are wrong, but it becomes more problematic to outright dismiss their opinions and objectives, yes, misguided as we may find them. It is a writer’s strength to consider psychological, social, and many other complex aspects in human behaviour.
When Soyinka reasoned about current issues, I also came to think of another great Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, who wrote highly acclaimed books, such as Things Fall Apart (1958) and No Longer at Ease (1960), with great insight into the feelings and the reasoning of human beings, and indeed our shortcomings, often caused by conflicting societal expectations. Achebe writes about a civil servant who becomes embroiled in corruption in the capital Lagos at the threshold of independence, divided between old and new times.
No evaluation or research report can cast as illuminating a light on the multifaceted causes and effects of corruption and other malpractices as literary works based on substantive knowledge. The fanatic too, on his or her side may have a wish to be principled, to seek for the right and pure. That may actually never be possible in human behaviour, since we all compromise in our daily lives. Well, we may not be corrupt, but never one hundred percent honest either.
Henrik Ibsen is the old master of realism in literature, the ‘drama of ideas’, as he termed it himself. He made the conflict between the ‘absolute’ and ‘nothing’ central in many of his works. First in the drama Brand (1865), which was acclaimed all over Europe, and then the follow up, Peer Gynt (1867), whose main character is a fairly unprincipled, unrealistic dreamer, with faults and flaws. Ibsen had sought much inspiration from folktales and the culture of common men and women. He was also concerned about the broader tensions between classes, the genders and political divide from left to right in a particularly materialistic time. He blamed people for being self-serving, dishonest, corrupt, selfish and more. People cared more for appearances than truth.
Ordinary readers often remember Ibsen for having said that if you take the ‘lie of life’ from a human being, you also rob him or her of happiness. In other words, we will have to live with the conflict and tension between doing what we know is right, and what is possible in reality, including what we do for convenience. Yet, Ibsen also stressed that it is often the individual who stands alone, who is ‘right.’
And then, allow me to mention one more Norwegian writer, Knut Hamsun (1859-1952), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, mainly for his monumental two-volume work entitled The Growth of the Soil and Pan, about the symbiotic existence of mankind and nature. Today, amongst ordinary people, he is better known for his book Hunger (‘Sult’, in Norwegian), depicting the life and psychological struggles of a poor writer in the Norwegian capital at the end of the 19th century. The book came to be loved by many of his countrymen, and, incidentally, also by some book-loving Pakistani-Norwegians in the 1970s, such as my friend, sociologist Farooq Khan, who is now back in Pakistan, but keeps recalling Hamsun.
Often, but not always, great literature has universal appeal, especially the social and psychologically oriented genre, which Hamsun used. But great literature can also just be local and best understood in its own context. Along with Henrik Ibsen, Sigrid Undset and the Swedish writer, August Strindberg, Knut Hamsun belongs to the quartet of Scandinavian writers with international fame and influence.
Of the current Pakistani writers discussing today’s issues, I am particularly fond of Mohsin Hamid. In his book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), a liberal young man from Lahore is living in New York during 9/11, and then begins questioning the basic aspects of Western cosmology. Earlier, he had embraced it all: Western competitive and ruthless capitalism; ‘our way of life’, as the Americans say, with a hectic professional life, on the one hand, and a private sphere, made up of considerate family and friends. It is a small and simple book to read, with big, deep content. I am sure we will revisit the book (and the cinematic version) again and again when we continue to search for reasons for fanaticism and extremism.
Mohsin Hamid recently said that he finds it his duty as a writer to ask questions and try to see aspects of society, not just write about them in a simplistic way. In his book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), he not only experiments with form, combining facts and fiction, but discusses complicated issues in simple form. He is very analytical, defending Pakistanis for being less “one-eyed” and extremist than what media shows, and for that matter, also defends Americans, because not all of them are ‘undercover assassins.’
And then, writing about literature in society, Allama Iqbal (1877-1938) must indeed be mentioned. In many ways, he has provided the intellectual and political foundation for the Muslim state of Pakistan. That shows the power of a greater writer, his influence on religious in the religious and secular spheres, and it shows the importance of culture, philosophy and literature as foundation stones in society.
Writers and other intellectuals have essential roles in presenting social and psychological issues in a form and language that the common man and woman can understand with artistic elegance and depth. Researchers do the same, but little of it reaches ordinary people since their form and language are often restricted. Hence, we all rely on the literati’s wisdom to shed light on issues we otherwise would not understand. In this article, I have mentioned just a few of the themes and topics that a handful of wise writers have discussed. And if somebody ever says that literature (and art in general) are not useful, let us not listen to them.
Dear Pakistani reader, may I also include you in the tabula gratia for the Norwegian National Day on Saturday, 17 May. This year, we are marking the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution. Independence was part of what led to the golden age in literature and art, and vice-versa: literature played an essential role in the land’s nation-building.

 The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.