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What is literature?

May 20, 2015

Just re-reading Terry Eagleton’s ‘Introduction: What is Literature?’ (his introduction to Literary Theory: an Introduction) and liking some of the quotes. Some of the statements could be challenged (it was written 30 years ago), but the discussion remains interesting.

He begins: “If there is such a thing as literary theory, then it would seem obvious that there is something called literature which it is the theory of. We can begin, then, by raising the question: what is literature?
There have been various attempts to define literature. You can define it, for example, as ‘imaginative’ writing in the sense of fiction – writing which is not literally true. But even the briefest reflection on what people commonly include under the heading of literature suggests that this will not do. Seventeenth-century English literature includes Shakespeare, Webster, Marvell and Milton; but it also stretches to the essays of Francis Bacon, the sermons of John Donne, Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography and whatever it was that Sir Thomas Browne wrote. It might even at a pinch be taken to encompass Hobbe’s Leviathan or Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion. French seventeenth-century literature contains, along with Corneille and Racine, La Rochefoucauld’s maxims, Bossuet’s funeral speeches, Boileau’s treatise on poetry, Madame de Sevigne’s letters to her daughter and the philosophy of Descartes and Pascal. Nineteenth-century English literature usually includes Lamb (though not Bentham), Macaulay (but not Marx), Mill (but not Darwin or Herbert Spencer).
A distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, then, seems unlikely to get us far, not least because the distinction itself is often a questionable one.” (p.1)

Perhaps literature is definable not according to whether it is fictional or ‘imaginative’, but because it uses language in peculiar ways.” (p.2) “Formalism was essentially the application of linguistics to the study of literature; and because the linguistics in question were of a formal kind, concerned with the structures of language rather than with what one might actually say, the Formalists passed over the analysis of literary ‘content’ (where one might always be tempted into psychology or sociology) for the study of literary form.” (p.3) “The Formalists started out by seeing the literary work as a more or less arbitrary assemblage of ‘devices’, and only later came to see these devices as interrelated elements or ‘functions’ within a total textual system. ‘Devices included sound, imagery, rhythm, syntax, metre, rhyme, narrative techniques, in fact the whole stock of formal literary elements; and what all of these elements had in common was their ‘estranging’ or ‘defamiliarizing’ effect. What was specific to literary language, what distinguished it from other forms of discourse, was that it ‘deformed’ ordinary language in various ways. Under the pressure of literary devices, ordinary language was intensified, condensed, twisted, telescoped, drawn out, turned on its head. It was language ‘made strange’; and because of this estrangement, the everyday world was also suddenly made unfamiliar. In the routines of everyday speech, our perceptions of and responses to reality become stale, blunted, or, as the Formalists would say, ‘automatized’. Literature, by forcing us into a dramatic awareness of language, refreshes these habitual responses and renders objects more ‘perceptible’.” (pp.3-4)

The idea that there is a single ‘normal’ language, a common currency shared equally by all members of society, is an illusion. Any actual language consists of a highly complex range of discourses, differentiated according to class, region, gender, status and so on, which can by no means be neatly unified into a single homogeneous linguistic community. One person’s norm may be another’s deviation….” (p.5)

“It would not be easy to isolate, from all that has been variously called ‘literature’, some constant set of inherent features.” (p.9)

“John M. Ellis has argued that the term ‘literature’ operates rather like the word ‘weed’: weeds are not particular kinds of plant, but just any kind of plant which for some reason or another a gardener does not want around. Perhaps ‘literature’ means something like the opposite: any kind of writing which for some reason or another somebody values highly. As the philosophers might say, ‘literature’ and ‘weed’ are functional rather than ontological terms: they tell us about what we do, not about the fixed being of things. They tell us about the role of a text or a thistle in a social context, its relations with and differences from its surroundings, the ways it behaves, the purposes it may be put to and the human practices clustered around it.” (p.9)

“The fact that we always interpret literary works to some extent in the light of our own concerns – indeed that in one sense of ‘our own concerns’ we are incapable of doing anything else –  might be one reason why certain works of literature seem to retain their value across the centuries. It may be, of course, that we still share many preoccupations with the work itself; but it may also be that people have not actually been valuing the ‘same’ work at all, even thought they may think they have. ‘Our’ Homer is not identical with the Homer of the Middle Ages, nor ‘our’ Shakespeare with that of his contemporaries; it is rather that different historical periods have constructed a ‘different’ Homer and Shakespeare for their own purposes, and found in these texts elements to value or devalue, though not necessarily the same ones. All literary works, in other words, are ‘rewritten’, if only unconsciously, by the societies which read them; indeed there is no reading of a work which is not also a ‘re-writing’. No work, and no current evaluation of it, can simply be extended to new groups of people without being changed, perhaps almost unrecognizably, in the process; and this is one reason why what counts as literature is anotably unstable affair.” (p.12)

Interests are constitutive of our knowledge, not merely prejudices which imperil it. The claim that knowledge should be ‘value-free’ is itself a value-judgement.” (p.14)

“What we have uncovered so far, then, is not only that literature does not exist in the sense that insects do, and that the value-judgements by which it is constituted are historically variable, but that these value-judgements themselves have a close relation to social ideologies. They refer in the end not simply to private taste, but to the assumptions by which certain social groups exercise and maintain power over others.” (p.16)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine; italics in original) Terry Eagleton (1983) Literary Theory: an Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell


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