Literary History and the Study of Literature Author(s): Jan Brandt Corstius Source: New Literary History, Vol

. 2, No. 1, A Symposium on Literary History (Autumn, 1970), pp. 65-71 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 01/03/2011 17:14
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Literary History and the Study of Literature Jan BrandtCorstius
T is beyond doubtthat today the historicalsenseis weakening. The old ambiguousattitudetowardsthe past-acknowledgement of history to be a valuable operative force in the present, but also the awarenessthat history is often a drag on progress-is being replaced by the feelingthat our societyno longer needs historyfor the solutionof its problems. Consequently, it is thought uselessto interpretand evaluate the past as a function of the presentand the future. According to those who hold this opinion, attemptshave to be made to live without history. This changeof mind with regardto history,so apparentin the younger generation,is, of course, due to a number of causeswhich we cannot trace as clearlyas we shouldlike. It is alwaysdifficult,if not impossible, to grasp the true origins of a new sensibility. But this difficulty can never be an excuse for dropping in advance any inquiry into the causes of the phenomenonat issue. The presentfeeling that historyis of little or no use to modem man in his attemptsto come to grips with the problemsof humanity,has, I think, much to do with the rapid and and religiousthought radicalchangesin the social,moral, philosophical, of our time and their effectson education,teaching, and scholarship,as shown by the dazzling succession of problems posited and dropped, theories thrown out and exploded, methods proposed and rendered of thought and action favors out of date. This embarrassing atmosphere reasoningsand decisionswhich are based ratherupon feeling and sentiment than upon reflection. The same effect is producedby the intricacy and opaquenessof so many questions,so that it becomes impossibleto coverthe whole range of relevantdata. What may be, in this situation, the meaning of the study of history? Surelyone answerto this question will be that the present turns so quickly into a past dead and buried and is in itself so despicablethat only a future matterswhich has to be protectedfrom any contagionby history. Yet we cannot part with history,since we cannot escape humanity. To ignore that aspect of our human situation means that our reason-



ings and decisions are made more deficient than they are already doomed to be. It is a curtailmentof our freedomby ourselves,in conand evaluationof the past, which sequenceof which the interpretation form an essentialpart of our thought, are reducedto mattersof momentary feeling. Notions of the past-and we have them willy-nilly-are no longer subject to our critical thinking. But because they still play their part in our making of the futurewe equip ourselvesbadly for the building of a new society, although it is, paradoxically,in its behalf that we seek to do away with historyas much as possible. To one who does not care for the future and deniesthe past any significancefor individual and social life, the presentmight be a series of disconnected momentsof feeling. This view, however, excludesconsciousness of the it reduces man's existence to mere without reflection, present, being that is, to the situationof the new-bornchild. This is, of course, an entirely theoretical case. However, without maintainingthat mankind will destroyitself by abandoning reflection upon existence,I do maintainthat such neglectis a regression.We may observeit in those who rejectpresentsociety and, at the same time, feel themselves helplessto give theirconceptsof the futurea theoreticalfoundation that can be realized. This is a ratherfrustrating situation,symptoms of which we can perceivein studentsof literature. They nurse a strong scepticism about the value of literary history for the study of of to the understanding literature,or even deny that historycontributes literaryphenomena. They do not believe any longer in their study as it is actuallytaught and try to force a new sense upon it, even if need be, to abandonthe notionof literature. These feelings of literary students are not rooted exclusivelyin a changed attitude towards history. They are nourishedtoo by a kind of literaryhistorywhich, so the critics claim, is cultivatedfor its own sake, bears no referenceto the present, does not care for the literary text and confinesitself to meticulousdetails. Needlessto say, a criticism of literaryhistorywhich is bent on presentingthis picture of the literary historian saddles us with a caricature of literary history, although as a caricature,it has its original. That this originalis, for the greater part, a thing of the past illustratesagain the well-knownfact that images, especiallythose of shortcomings,come to lead a life of their own, since the situation which they once representeddoes not exist any more. The formerlyjustifiablecriticismhas turned into the amateurishopinionof the generalpublic. The caricatured image of the in historian the and figures literary papers popularwritingsof the day and occasionallyservesthe purposesof the opponentsof literaryhistory
in manipulating their public. Such a criticism that limps behind the facts, demonstrates in its own way how the past holds its grip on the



present,in this case obviouslydetrimentalto the objects (a better teaching and scholarship)which it pretendsto pursue. The anti-historicalattitude with respectto the study of literatureis indirectly furtheredby new criticism and structuralism.I know that considerliteraryhistoryessentialto many new critics and structuralists research. In their literary approach to literature the structural elements of the texts get their meaningsand functionswithin their historical contexts. But the approach as such is fundamentallyunhistorical. Recent structuralism, especiallythat of influentialFrench scholars,righolds to this basic principle and, consequently,dehistoricizes orously the studyof literature. This kind of structuralism is attackedby marxist as well as by neomarxist literary students. They both reproachit with an isolation of literaturefrom its social context. But they disagreeon the subjectof the structuralists' rejectionof literaryhistory. To the marxist scholar historical forces are operativein the same context, and by paying due attention to them he maintains,in his way, the rights of literaryhistory. The neomarxiststudent of literaturedoes not care for history at all, since to him historicalthought tends to derogate from the revolution. The shared opinion that literaryhistoryis of no value to the study of literatureis a common ground whereupon an alliance between structuralistsand neomarxistshas come about. Literaryhistoryis relegated to sociology and literarystudy comes to be the study of language, i.e. poetic language, ideologicallyconsidereda means by which capitalist society manipulatesthe readerin order to keep him a true member of the bourgeoisie. Scepticismabout the significanceof literaryhistoryand attemptsto confer a new sense on the study of literatureare in themselvesrespectable and legitimate. By no means do I think them to be reprehensible phenomena. They questionthe habitualcredosof the literaryhistorians and resistroutineanswersto fundamentalquestionsof our study, without falling,we hope, into new easy answersor scrappingall "values"for worthlessprejudices. They test the meaning and function of literary history. This can only be done, however, by viewing literary history in its relation to the whole of the study of literature. If that history has a meaning it will be one which must be relevantto the ends of literaryresearch; and if it has a function it must be one in behalf of the same research. We study literaturein order to get some insight into the nature of a universally-known cultural phenomenon. By this study we deepen
our awareness of a human faculty and its achievements. To study literature is to satisfy a primary disposition of man, namely to be deeply



engaged in humanity, in this case to be eager for knowledge of one of the ways by which the mind creates, in endless variety, its interpretation of the universe. The poetic process and its creations are subjects of our criticism. But what has history to do with it? On the bookshelf Joyce's Ulysses is next to Homer's Odyssey, and again, next to that classic of the Irish author figures an international host of twentieth-century novels that owe so many features to their common neighbor. This small set of volumes placed on a shelf above a writing desk symbolizes the unfinished past of literature and at the same time the literary background of the poet at work. The texture of Western literature as it has been structured in the course of the ages ineluctably has its impact on the mind of the poet. He may start the making of a poem by writing down a line, which is suddenly there as a gift from heaven, but it is a line, never a form unknown to any poet before. Yet what he is writing in that and the following lines has never, if he shows himself to be a true poet, been seen before. Thus the poet's individuality operating in language is enacted in forms and formulae, techniques and devices that together point to literature as system, as a coherent set of formal and ideatic traditions which have come down to him from the past and from which he derives his notions of the making of poetry. This whole is, of course, not an entity which runs invariably for all ages and literatures. It is subject to changes by national literary conventions and immanent as well as extra-literary developments, the causes of which are often very difficult to trace. All making of poetry and prose is regulated by literature as system in its periodic appearance, i.e. the whole of literary modes and concepts, visions, perspectives and aspirations, theories and experiments of the time. This is, needless to say, only one single aspect of the poetic process. But how can the reader grasp as fully as possible what happens at the conception of a poem or a novel without knowledge of the literary thought of the time and its subsequent practice? This concerns only the way by which the poetic langue of the time turns into the parole of the poet. There is, however, that other, far more unsolvable, historical problem concerning the voice of one poet subtly ringing in the ears of his fellow-in-poesis when he is at work, and the imagery of a once-read poem blinking in his mind's eye. Much of the creative process is hidden from our observation. But the role played in it by the literary thought of the period and the effects it produces are at least more or less traceable. Why should we deprive ourselves of understanding by renouncing literary history? The depreciation of literary history is accompanied by an increase of literary theory. This shifting of scholarly interest has something to do



with the apparent reaction against an historical approach of literature that scarcely attended to the structural functions of the data which were diligently dug up and truly described. In its turn literary theory now claims to dispense with literary history. It often proclaims the universality and timelessness of its principles and classifications without having tried the latter on material taken from as many periods and literatures as possible. Consequently it makes those principles and classifications operative in the analyses of texts irrespective of the period to which that material belongs. Thus it strips a piece of literature of certain relationships relevant to our understanding of the text and reduces its essentials to a mere skeleton. Any application of literary theory that will not commit such a mutilation of literature involves a scanning of the interrelations between general theoretical viewpoints and the conventions of periods and national literatures, which, on their part, may govern the functions of the theoretically discriminated phenomena. How can this be done without literary history? It is literary history that makes available to theory the abundance and diversity of data that it needs in order to be well-founded and to clarify its problems. Since it is only by comparing and analyzing literary data, carefully chosen from various literatures and several periods, that generalization comes about. Insofar as literary criticism aims at evaluation, the imponderability of certain textual elements or even their elusiveness limit, also in this case, the effect of our discrimination, sometimes even so drastically that the core of the matter altogether withdraws. Consequently evaluative criticism must be supplied with all possible criteria in order to give it a fair chance. Fully aware of the probability that the ultimate truth about the object of our evaluation will stay out of reach, we do not resign our task, but apply all discriminative methods that we find at our disposal. Comparison is one of them, based upon formal and ideatic similarities. And why should we, in comparing, exclusively juxtapose only contemporary texts? This would mean a wholly arbitrary reduction of the efficacy of our method. Literary evaluation cannot do without literary history. This is the more evident if the typical literary context is concerned in the comparision. And that will often be the case, for the observation of the various individual realizations, in the course of time, of literary types-themes, motifs, formulae, symbols, figures of speech, versification, etc.-and their possible historical interrelationships has in itself an evaluative tenor and, at the same time, places the evaluation on the firm footing of the comparative method. Many a text has its roots in strong literary traditions, especially those of genre and theme, so that only a trained knowledge of these historical phenomena enables us to evaluate its individual qualities. This



holds true of texts of all centuries, our age not excepted. The making of literature is like a game of chess. The good performance is carried out according to traditional rules and shines out as quite new and unique. This brings me to the next part of my subject, which is the relation between the criticism of modern literary movements and literary history. Some twenty years ago the argument concerning the application of the historical method to the study of literature centered on two closely related points. Could we, it was asked, identify ourselves with the poet and critic of the past, as far as their literary opinions and visions were concerned, to such an extent that we could reach as near as possible the truth of that which had once happened in literature? Or is all criticism an action of the present literary thought towards the past? That debate was provoked by those who were inclined to answer the last question in the affirmative. And one of the issues of the discussion on the use of the historical method in the study of literature was a conception of literary history that pretended to give full scope to the preferences of the historian; he could pronounce his priorities far more openly and explicitly than he had allowed himself to do so before. As a matter of fact this conception was more discussed than put into practice. It was, in my opinion, one of the symptoms of the changed attitude towards history already mentioned. However, from that conception it was but a step to affirm the desirability of abandoning all literary history by restricting oneself to the study of contemporary literature which, by the way, is itself, in many of its forms, the outcome of experiments made by poets for the purpose of freeing themselves from the burden of history. To start from zero was, and is still, a very attractive idea to poets as well as to students of literature. Yet it is a fallacy to fancy that the study of contemporary literature can be done without literary history. The only zero in literature is the white page, but as soon as the last word has disappeared, literature seems to turn into the plastic arts. I do not think that we can trace exactly the borderline between these arts and literature. Even when we have to deal with modernistic literary phenomena such as assemblage and collage in poetry and prose, the making of concrete poetry, the use of aleatoric and randomizing devices, the orchestration of sound poems and the construction of object poems, literary history plays its part in the study of these kinds of literature. For instance, how can we understand the own nature of concrete poetry without knowing about the Mallarmean notion of "constellation" or the idea of the "moving reader" introduced by Apollinaire, the "mobiles" of the Flemish poet Paul van Ostayen, or the "letter-images" of Theo van Doesburg, the founder and conductor of the international review De Styl, not to mention their



literary ancestors? The theoreticians and critics of concrete poetry constantly refer to literary history, for its help enables them to trace similarities and differences, to discern influences, imitations, pastiches, plagiarisms, and, subsequently, to find what is actually new in that poetry. In the foregoing I mentioned only a few reasons why the scholarship and teaching of literature cannot do without literary history. I referred to the function of literary history in studying the poetic process, analyzing the literary text, evaluating a work of literature, and criticizing contemporary literary movements. One feels slightly embarrassed to be justifying such a vital, integral part of our scholarship and teaching, until one realizes that the anti-historical attitude of our time is not the outcome of a scrutiny into the functions of history with regard to both. Literary history as an approach to literature is not put aside because it has proved to be an outworn manner in dealing with literature or because it can be replaced by a more effective one. It is rejected because of the general feeling of uneasiness about scholarship and teaching concerning the humanities, a feeling that expresses the world-wide questioning of established values which we experience today. Literary history is denied validity not for its presumed defectiveness as a scholarly method but for the function, imputed to all history, to be a weapon of the conservatives in the social and political war of the time. This feeling about history is constantly motivated by the lack of a legitimate outlook on human society, since any consistent view on man and society will assimilate history. Therefore, we scholars and teachers of literary history have to suit our didactics to that motivation in order to overcome the negative feeling about history. Students urge the necessity of discussing our subject by appealing to the motivation-crisis wherein they feel themselves involved with regard to their study. But that crisis is essentially one of their view of life, especially concerning human society. It is of no use working off the latter by throwing all responsibility for their critical situation upon the principles and methods of the study. Of course, the way of the present study is related to the way of the present life. But it is also true that scholarship and teaching only change in a society which is being changed by men who are able to shape their world thanks to their moral and intellectual fortitude. The legitimate motivation of our study is founded in our legitimate motivation of humanity. This holds true for all, scholars, teachers, and students.


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