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notes towards creating a new literary theory

notes towards creating a new literary theory

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Published by Zafar Siddique

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Published by: Zafar Siddique on Oct 29, 2008
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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\u2019s time and effort was taken up with practical matters such as hunting, war, tribal ma-
noeuvrings, 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 im-
prove (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 im-
portant 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 \ufb01rst 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 enter-
tainment 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\u2019 wrath and the wiliness of Ulysses
no doubt fascinated and delighted the listening Greeks on cold winter nights.

From the beginning then the poet\u2019s stories served a variety of functions: on one level, they
were entertainment pure and simple. However, they were also far more than this, record-
ing 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 un-
known). 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 con-
structions have become correspondingly more complex--though I believe every signi\ufb01cant
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\u2019s \u201ccollective unconscious\u201d--a concept made famous by the Swiss
psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung. We have no evidence that the collective unconscious ex-
ists, but it is a reasonable hypothesis that explains many otherwise inexplicable phenom-
ena, such as that of \u201csynchronicity\u201d--another Jungian idea. Frequently we \ufb01nd that things
seem to come together in a meaningful way that is neither causal nor teleological. For ex-
ample, a person may dream of the death of a close relative and wake up the next day to
\ufb01nd 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 happen-
ing 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, \ufb01lled with archetypes, that we all shared to-
gether (such as \u201cMother\u201d, \u201cFather\u201d, \u201cDeath\u201d, \u201cthe Shadow\u201d, 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 \u201cAtman\u201d 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 pro\ufb01tably applied to the understanding of literature--and Jung
himself wrote a superlative essay on the meaning of Joyce\u2019s \u201cUlysses\u201d (which I \ufb01nd 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 some-
thing 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 incorpo-
rated 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 explana-
tion of a literary work. Other denser works need more attention to be paid to deeper struc-
tures (such as archetypes), but a clear and consistent picture of how a work of art func-
tions 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 \u201cUlysses\u201d)--but it is usually of great importance.

Naturally, the \u201ctheme\u201d or \u201cmeaning\u201d of a literary work is vital too in most cases. This con-
sideration 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 sci-
ence 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 \ufb01eld, 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 \ufb02exible 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 fu-

The best critics will certainly try to avoid that barren concentration on character analysis
that has typi\ufb01ed 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\u2019s creative mind? Obliquely, I may learn a little about the author\u2019s wider intentions
and major themes by looking at characterisation; but mostly by obstinately concentrating
on a mere part of the author\u2019s 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, characteri-
sation, in its place, is one important aspect of a literary structure\u2019s quality--as is also stan-

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