Now you can view this blog on your mobile phones! Give a try.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Birth of literature as a discipline and construction of literary theory

Following is the notes taken down by Noopur of III year FEP during my two lectures - on birth and emergence of English literature as a discipline and Construction of literary theory on 8 June and 12 June.


After discussing the requests of students about how the class should function, Mr Pinto started talking about how literature emerged as a discipline. This was an overview class spanning two hours totally and we tried following the trajectory of the birth of the English department in universities and where theory in literature began. He explained that the English literature department is one of the youngest departments and that its origin is largely indebted to the empirical agenda of England. The first one was setup in 1830's in Harvard and then three departments were setup in various presidencies in India. The intent behind introducing English literature as a subject was to naturalize it and make the natives aware about their (English) culture by writing and talking about it. After the sepoy mutiny in 1857, the rule of India was transferred from the East India company to the Queen herself. 1858 onwards under this direct rule, more universities To legitimize its position, literature as a discipline starts creating and telling an account of its roots and its long history. While doing this, the path it takes is similar to that of Christianity and derives its roots from Greek literature.That is why the earliest texts in literature are from ancient Greece, namely those of Plato. Until the romantic period, practice always preceded theory and literature as such had no theory independent of the past experiences in practice. The earliest theory in literature itself was by Aristotle- "On poetics" where he has elaborately summarised a play by Sophocles called "Oedipus Rex". As discussed earlier, this discipline emerged as a part of the imperialist and military agenda wherein the logic was that if one restricts access to a particular region's literature then people on the other side have negligible or faint idea about how their enemies are and thus, since they don't know about the situation/problems/grievances of their enemy, it is easier to fight. So, underlying the foundations of literature as a discipline there is a nationalist or imperialist agenda at work.

Then he spoke about what literature is. In numerous discussions about what the nature and function of literature are, the idea that " literature is a mirror of the society" comes up. Mr. Pinto explained how this idea is also borrowed from the concept of "mimesis" from Greek philosophy.Mimesis means imitation in Greek. A sophist called Thales had asked the question: What is the substance of life?He reached the answer as water being the substance of life. Plato did not answer this question but asked another question about "how the world is made?" To this he says that "all objects in this world are an imperfect imitation of the ideal". He did not elaborate on the implications or nature of "the ideal" but explained that since all objects, including life, are an "imperfect imitation" of the ideal, they cannot seek to equal the actual essence.Further, literature seeks to describe this already "imperfect imitation" which means that it is "twice removed from reality" and is only "representing" reality. The question of representation becomes very important because then it depends on the medium and its intrinsic nature how reality is represented. Thus literature is a mirror of life, perhaps reflecting distorted images bearing resemblance to " the real/ideal".

Summing up on the timeline that the "literary theory and criticism" class would follow he started with the pre-socratic period to the Socratic period to the post Socratic. Socratic period consists of Socrates, Aristotle and Plato. This is followed by the Romantic period, then Modernist and finally the post structuralist/post modern period. Until the time of the Romantics, English literature was not informed by any theory that asked questions about the nature of writing, essence of literature itself etc. The romantics expressed a desire to write about the ordinary people, instead of the aristocracy and nobility like Shakespeare did. Matthew Arnold probed into what should be literature. Here came the romantic notion of "literature as a tool to sensitize people" which still holds in governmental education policies whereby a paper or two of humanities is compulsory for students of pure/applied natural sciences and commerce. Then came the Victorian period where literature was used to propagate moral values in a massified form. With the Avant Garde movement, people started experimenting with both, form and content and rejecting the belief that literature should have a social purpose or meaning and utility. The modernist period saw movements like Formalism where the focus was on form. The premise was that changes in form change the way a text is perceived(?) Then came the structuralists who stressed on a common structure seen through different texts. Eg. Amitabh Bacchan usually played the archetypal hero Karna, from Mahabharata throughout a lot of films. The story line was such that he ends up being the abandoned, struggler, eventually borders on the line of law (Ashis Nandy) So, we can see a common structure throughout a plethora of texts which are just tweaked in content. By this time, because of a conscious effort into producing "new"/"different" literature, theory had begun to precede practice. Vladimir Propp, a folklorist and russian structuralist had pointed out that there are actually only six to eight original structures in the short stories written till date.

No comments: