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Thursday, August 12, 2010

What is Literature by Terry Eagleton

What is literature?- Terry Eagleton
Mr. Pinto said "if there is any theory answers this question it must encompass all its dimensions, and even if one of the dimensions is missing the theory fails.

Terry Eagleton, in his essay challenges all the definitions of Literature that have been put forth and challenges the basic understanding of literature that we have. In fact he rejects the idea of any "basic understanding" of what is literature.

Literature as Imaginative writing
  • He begins with Literature being defined as imaginative writing.
  • With imaginative/fictional/creative writing such as works by Shakespeare, Milton etc. other works which were not exactly fiction or imaginative writing were included as a part for English Literature. Example: Sermons of John Donne,  Madame De Sevigne's letters to her daughter, philosophy of Descartes and Pascal. 
  • There was no clear distinction between 'fact' and 'fiction'. 
  • In the late 16th and early 17th century 'novel' used both factual and fictional events and even news reports were not considered purely factual. 
  • Genesis read as fact by some and fiction by others. Therefore no clear cut difference between fact and fiction.
  • Moreover  if one still goes by this definition, there are many works of fiction that are not considered to be Literature. Example: Mills and boon, Superman comics, Sidney Sheldon.
  • "If literature is 'creative' or 'imaginitive' writing, does this imply that history, philosophy and natural science are uncreative and unimaginative?"

Literature as 'writing' that uses peculiar language
  • It is because Literature uses the language in peculiar ways that it is different from everyday 'normal' way of speech.
  • Roman Jakobson, speaks of Literature as  "organised violence committed on ordinary speech".
  • Disproportion between signifier and signified: A mismatch between the signifier and the signified. For example when in Macbeth you read the line "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow..." you know that the character is talking of eternal bore dome and not of the literal meaning of the word 'tomorrow' therefore creating a mismatch in the signifier (tomorrow) and the signified (the next day).
  • By bringing in peculiarity the language draws attention to itself. This is the reason when you read a fairy tale that starts with "Once upon a time..." you know that there is no real history associated with the line but it refers to a time in the story therefore drawing attention to itself or the text present in front of you.
  • "The formalists started out by seeing the literary work as a more of less arbitrary assemblage of 'devices' , and only later came to see these devices as interrelated elements or 'functions' within a total textual system. 
  • These devices included imagery, sound, rhythm, syntax, metre, rhyme, narrative techniques etc.
  • These devices were used as literary elements to 'defamiliarise' or 'estragement'.  
  • In other words "It was language 'made strange'; and because of this estrangement, the everyday world was also suddenly made unfamiliar".
  • What he is trying to imply here is that in our everyday routine we get so used to the usual things that we hardly notice them, we become "as Formalists would say 'automatised', Literature, by forcing us into a dramatic awareness of language, refreshes these habitual responses and renders objects more perceptile."
  • By defamiliarising or alienating us from the text or ordinary speech gives a fuller understand or a kind of revelation or the same experience. Its like after you have a fight or an argument, you sit alone and do a flashback of what happened and you try to hear your own words and put yourself in the other person's shoes and realise the damage that you might have done by saying certain things. In this process you are looking at your behaviour from outside, or other person's perspective, hence estranging yourself from you, and in the process gaining a better understanding of yourself.
  • "Most of the time we breathe in air without being conscious of it: like language, it is the very medium in which we move. But if the air is suddenly thickened or infected we are forced to attend to our breathing with new vigilance and the effect of this may be a heightened experience of our bodily life.”
Literature as something special
  • Then literature was looked by the formalists as a 'special' kind of language in contrast to the 'ordinary' language that we commonly use. 
  • But the problem here arises is that there is no universal 'ordinary' language. In other words the so called ordinary/common language is different for different classes, gender, region, status and so on.
  • "One person's norm may be another deviation"
  •  Same is the case with 'estrangement' mentioned earlier. A piece of writing might estranging is one context or community but not so in certain other. Example: in a particular society if everyone uses the sentence "shall I compare thee to a summer's day.." in everyday life it will not be estranging to that society anymore.
  • "Anyone who believes that 'literature' can be defined by such special uses of language has to face the fact that there is more metaphor in Manchester than there is in Marvell. There is no 'literary' device - metonymy, synecdoche, litotes and so on- which are not quite intensively used in daily discourse"
  • Another reason why considering 'estrangement' as the definition is problematic is that any piece of writing or sentence can be read as estranging. 
  • Example: a sign that reads -'Dogs must be carried on the escalator.' as unambiguous as it seems at first a close look at it reveals its ambiguity. Does it mean that you must carry a dog on the escalator, and in failing to do so you will be banned from the escalator?
  • Also a drunk person may see hidden meanings in various hoardings or even road signs giving it cosmic significance.  
Literature as a non-pragmatic discourse
  • When we read a poem referring to a woman as lovely as a rose, the poet is telling about women and love in general. Therefore we look at literature as non-pragmatic/practical as against a physics textbook.
  • The problem with this way of defining is that non-practicality of a text cannot be defined objectively. Which means that it depends on how a reader prefers to read the text. 
  • A reader can prefer to read Gibbon's account of Roman empire for information or prose style and so on. 
  • "A piece of writing may start off like life as history or philosophy and then come to be ranked as literature; or it may start off as literature and them come to be valued for its archaeological significance."
  • "What matters may not be where you came from but how people treat you."
  • Therefore, Eagleton says, there is no essence of literature because any writing can be read non-pragmatically.
  • Consider literature as being a highly valued kind of writing. If this were true, then any writing can be considered as literature. For me a letter written by my mother to be will hold a value higher than any piece of writing by Shakespeare. Therefore a value given to any writing must be subjective.
  • Values on the other hand are variable and change from time to time.
  • "The so-called 'literary canon', the unquestioned 'great tradition' of the 'national literature', has to be recognised as a construct, fashioned by particular people for particular time. There is no such thing as a literary work or tradition which is valuable in itself, regardless of what anyone might have said or come to say about it."
  • By which Eagleton suggests that the value that any writing enjoys is the value given to it by certain literary canon, or authority and is subject to change. 
  • Yet here he also says that value- judgements are unstable does not mean that they are subjective. 
  • Value-judgements depends on the value system and social ideologies that one belongs to. 
For conclusion please read the last paragraph of the essay.

I think that this a very clear case of what Derrida calls Deconstruction, where Terry Eagleton has picked 'literature' and by taking all the existing definitions he has proved that there is nothing called literature.


Anil Pinto said...

Thanks, Satya. Come out beautiful.

satya said...


Anonymous said...

this helped a lot! :) just thought i should thank you for putting this up!

satya said...

My pleasure :)