2007-08 BM1: Session 14

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Back to 2007-08 BM1 Introduction to the Critical and Scholarly Discussion of Literature, Part 1

---1. Introductory Reflections: Literary Theory and the Interpretation of Texts -- Robinson Crusoe and The Moonstone

Literary Theory, at its most general, addresses two questions:

  1. What is literature?
  2. How should literature be interpreted? Literary theory presupposes that in order to interpret a text, we have to go beyond our individual and spontaneous impressions and intuitions and choose a systematic approach.

  • As regards the first point, we have been doing 'literary theory' throughout this lecture.

  • As regards the second point, we will add another question: Why should literature be interpreted?

Some anecdotal evidence:

  • Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (1868), Chapter 1:
In the first part of ROBINSON CRUSOE, at page one hundred and twenty-nine, you will find it thus written:
"Now I saw, though too late, the Folly of beginning a Work before we count the Cost, and before we judge rightly of our own Strength to go through with it."
Only yesterday, I opened my ROBINSON CRUSOE at that place. Only this morning (May twenty-first, Eighteen hundred and fifty), came my lady's nephew, Mr. Franklin Blake, and held a short conversation with me, as follows:—
Two hours have passed since Mr. Franklin left me. As soon as his back was turned, I went to my writing desk to start the story. There I have sat helpless (in spite of my abilities) ever since; seeing what Robinson Crusoe saw, as quoted above—namely, the folly of beginning a work before we count the cost, and before we judge rightly of our own strength to go through with it. Please to remember, I opened the book by accident, at that bit, only the day before I rashly undertook the business now in hand; and, allow me to ask—if THAT isn't prophecy, what is?
[…] such a book as ROBINSON CRUSOE never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years—generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco—and I have found it my friend in need in all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad—ROBINSON CRUSOE. When I want advice—ROBINSON CRUSOE. In past times when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too much—ROBINSON CRUSOE. I have worn out six stout ROBINSON CRUSOES with hard work in my service. On my lady's last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and ROBINSON CRUSOE put me right again. Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/155/155-h/155-h.htm (03.02.2007)
  • A similar scene is found in Robinson Crusoe itself, but here it is the Bible which provides guidance:
I went, directed by Heaven no doubt; for in this Chest I found a Cure, both for Soul and Body, I open’d the Chest, and found what I look’d for, viz. the Tobacco; and as the few Books, I had sav’d, lay there too, I took out one of the Bibles which I mention’d before, […] and brought both that and the Tobacco with me to the Table.
What Use to make of the Tobacco, I knew not, as to my Distemper, or whether it was good for it or no; but I try’d several Experiments with it, as if I was resolv’d it should hit one Way or other: …
In the Interval of this Operation, I took up the Bible and began to read, but my Head was too much disturb’d with the Tobacco to bear reading, at least that Time; only having open’d the Book casually, the first Words that occurr’d to me were these, Call on me in the Day of Trouble, and I will deliver, and thou shalt glorify me.*
The Words were very apt to my Case, and made some Impression upon my Thoughts at the Time of reading them, tho’ not so much as they did afterwards; for as for being deliver’d, the Word had no Sound, as I may say, to me; the Thing was so remote, so impossible in my Apprehension of Things, […] however, […] I mused upon them very often. […] but before I lay down, I did what I never had done in all my Life, I kneel’d down and pray’d to God to fulfil the Promise to me, that if I call’d upon him in the Day of Trouble, he would deliver me; …
http://www.pierre-marteau.com/editions/1719-robinson-crusoe.html (03.02.2007)

---2. Received Notions about Literary Theory

The Succession of Theoretical Approaches and Movements since the Middle of the 19th Century

Received Idea: Since the middle of the nineteenth century, there has been a succession of theoretical movements and approaches. Here is a list of those which have been most important in the Anglo-American context, together with some of the names and the concepts associated with them.

There are two alternative patterns for accounting for the succession of these approaches:

The Ancient Tradition of Poetological Reflection

Received Idea: The tradition of literary theory dates back to antiquity. It begins with Aristotle's Poetics. Its includes not only important texts on the "art of poetry" (such as that by Horace), rediscovered in the Renaissance, and imitated as well as modified by "moderns" (cf. Boileau's Art of Poetry, Pope's Essay on Criticism) but also the defenses of poetry which are produced from Sidney to Shelley. (This, for example, is the idea you find on the English wikipedia, cf. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_theory )

Pro-Theory/Anti-Theory Positions

There is a debate in literary studies between those who are pro-theory and those who are anti-theory. All literary theories are caught in a fundamental dilemma: Do they help elucidate the text, or to they stand in the way of a correct understanding of the text and of literature in general? Are they the key without which texts cannot be understood properly, or are they obstacles that stand in the way of a proper understanding of the text?

---3. Second Thoughts

  • These received notions of theory do not take into account the history of the term literature and the different meanings it had at different times in history. And they have difficulty answering questions such as:
  • Does literary theory date back to the 19th century or to Aristotle?
  • What guides the choice of theory? Why should one use one particular theory rather than another?

---4. More comprehensive perspectives on the development of literary theory

Think of literary theory in relation to the historical changes in the meaning of 'literature'

When did literary theory arise?

  • From Aristotle to Shelley, from antiquity to around 1800, the focus is on poetry / poesy, not on literature.
  • Traditionally, poetics is not concerned with interpretation, but with the production or the judgment of poetry. It asks:
    • what rules and recipes are there for making different types of poems (in general and for individual genres and generic patterns)?
    • Is the text well/made according to these rules? Are there compensations for violating the rules (is it pleasing, beautiful, tasteful)?
  • (The Belles Lettres will privilege a discussion of 'taste' rather than 'rules', to which the question what is agreeable is central. (is it pleasing, beautiful, tasteful)?
  • After or around 1800, poetics has been appropriated and integrated into literary theory, just like poetry has become a part of literature.

Think of literary theory in context of wider debates and issues in society

Why do we start interpreting literature in the 19th century? And why do we choose particular theories, and not others.

  • Remember: Literature can take over from religious texts as an object of national relevance and educational value. The discussion of literature imports many topics and debates which are virulent across society.
  • Literary Theory helps us to import vital issues from a wider discussion in society, and to take our own position in these wider debates. Its development should be integrated in the development of the nationwide (and international) debates. (bm1-lit-theory-timeline-2.pdf )

Think of the movements in literary theory in correlation to contemporary movements in literature and art

Remember, for example, the relation in which Rushdie's Satanic Verses stood to contemporary post-structuralist and postcolonial theory.

Once the Writers who produce literature have begun to organise, or be organised, into groups or movements, literary criticism starts doing the same with the specialists whose task it has become to interpret literature.

The developments in literary theory can then be integrated into the development of the general social discussion of the various arts. For a first sketch, cf. Theory and the Wider Market of Debates - A First Draft

---5. What do we do when we come across literary theory?