Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Notes Towards the Creation of a Literary Theory

Story-telling, poetry, song, have existed as long as man has had language. Why is this so we might pertinently ask? The answer, I believe, is simple enough. In earlier ages, most of man’s time and effort was taken up with practical matters such as hunting, war, tribal manoeuvrings, family quarrels, love-making and child-bearing and rearing. It was necessary to record the great moments of success as well as the failures in order to learn and improve (or sometimes merely to stand still!). Naturally, the successes were exaggerated and the failures portrayed as great tragedies of the tribe. Whose job was it to keep these important events alive? Of course, it was the poet-player who was entrusted with this task. For example, it was poets of the oral tradition who were the first to sing of Troy and the Greek expedition there to repatriate the abducted Helen. These stories were passed down from one generation of poets to the next and, in their transferral, the stories became ever more embellished and more perfectly shaped to their essential purpose of making the Greeks proud of their forefathers and their history. However, the element of pure entertainment was present too in an age when men had fewer pleasures with which to while away the time. Tales of mighty heroes gave the present warriors of the tribe great men to emulate from the past, while famous stories of Achilles’ wrath and the wiliness of Ulysses no doubt fascinated and delighted the listening Greeks on cold winter nights.

From the beginning then the poet’s stories served a variety of functions: on one level, they were entertainment pure and simple. However, they were also far more than this, recording the history of the tribe and its moments of greatest success and tragedy for posterity (of particular importance for societies to which the discipline of history was as yet unknown). Also, these stories had a moral purpose, giving the warriors of the tribe great men from the past who they could try to emulate in the present. Of course, modern man has in many ways grown beyond the simple life of primitive men and his artistic and literary constructions have become correspondingly more complex--though I believe every significant work of real literary merit still includes unconscious and millennia old archetypes from the collective unconscious of all mankind. I would suggest that from time immemorial, great poets and artists have been particularly sensitive to the images or archetypes that existed and still exist within man’s “collective unconscious”--a concept made famous by the Swiss psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung. We have no evidence that the collective unconscious exists, but it is a reasonable hypothesis that explains many otherwise inexplicable phenomena, such as that of “synchronicity”--another Jungian idea. Frequently we find that things seem to come together in a meaningful way that is neither causal nor teleological. For example, a person may dream of the death of a close relative and wake up the next day to find that a close relative has indeed died. On the surface this seems like a supernatural occurrence and scientists and most psychologists would aggressively explain the happening as a mere coincidence. Jung, however, insisted that these moments were an effect of the collective unconscious: below personal consciousness and personal unconsciousness lay the realm of the collective unconscious, filled with archetypes, that we all shared together (such as “Mother”, “Father”, “Death”, “the Shadow”, etc.). It may appear to us that we are separate from the rest of humanity, but this collective pool of meaningful images and shared experience shows that we are all really linked together (the concept is similar to the “Atman” of Hindu thought). Consequently, when an occurrence concerns us closely, this collective unconscious can throw up strange and inexplicable knowledge due to our inter-relatedness.

I believe these ideas can be profitably applied to the understanding of literature--and Jung himself wrote a superlative essay on the meaning of Joyce’s “Ulysses” (which I find myself reading and re-reading in the hope of discovering new and important insights). However, in the construction of a useful literary theory, we are somewhat like magpies taking something that is useful from all over. For this reason, I would suggest that the extensive work done in the 20th century on linguistic semiotics should not be forgotten, but also incorporated into our theory as and when it should prove useful. In particular, semiotics studies the structure of narrative and this will often be of fundamental importance in the explanation of a literary work. Other denser works need more attention to be paid to deeper structures (such as archetypes), but a clear and consistent picture of how a work of art functions from a narrative point of view, will be important for most literary works--even poems. Of course, the narrative may be broken up, elliptical, concentrated on a single moment, or interminably drawn out (like “Ulysses”)--but it is usually of great importance.

Naturally, the “theme” or “meaning” of a literary work is vital too in most cases. This consideration is closely connected to didactic content (where it is present) and ethical stance. All this is most important and the critic should be able to call on a vast personal knowledge of human history, anthropology, culture, tradition, comparative religion, philosophy and science in order to elucidate meanings and purports that in some cases may be conscious and in others below consciousness--or even unconscious. Perhaps more so than in any other intellectual field, the literary critic must be prepared to cross academic boundaries in order to throw light upon the important (and sometimes unimportant!) writings of our age. The critic should also have a flexible and non dogmatic mind that is able to trace those lines of convergence in the modern age that might lead towards something new for the future.

The best critics will certainly try to avoid that barren concentration on character analysis that has typified so many forms of past criticism. To what point should I psychoanalyse Hamlet or J. Alfred Prufrock when these are merely single and incomplete examples of the writer’s creative mind? Obliquely, I may learn a little about the author’s wider intentions and major themes by looking at characterisation; but mostly by obstinately concentrating on a mere part of the author’s structure--while neglecting the rest--I will put myself in a situation where I am probably unable to see the wood for the trees. Of course, characterisation, in its place, is one important aspect of a literary structure’s quality--as is also standard of dialogue, reality of place and situation, etc. However, all these phenomena are only a part of the author’s overall creation of a semiotic structure and the whole is very definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Naturally, we should give serious consideration to all these other factors and, if the author writes well and creates with felicity, then we will usually find high levels of competence in all these areas. However, in the final analysis, it is the literary work in its totality that the artist has created--and it is surely this totality that is usually most in need of explication!

These have been just a few early notes towards the creation of a literary criticism that I myself can feel at home with. Tentatively, I would like to call it “Analytical Semiotics”--thereby giving a nod to Jung’s “Analytical Psychology” as well as making a direct reference to semiotics based linguistics.


Anonymous BossMan said...


4:05 AM  

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