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Rene Wellek

The Mode of Existence of a

Literary Work of Art

This abstruse-sounding title1 is the best name I can think of for a problem
which is, in all sorts of disguises, widely discussed and of far-reaching im-
portance both for critical theor y and practice. What is meant b y saying
that a certain person does not understand the real poem? What is the real
poem, where should we look for it, how does it exist? A correct answer to
these questions must solve several critical problems and open a way to the
proper analysis of a work of art. It, at least, will dispose of many pseudo-
problems. We shall not, of course, find an answer to the question whethe r
a given poem is good or bad, but we might find an answer which woul d
tell us where to look for the genuine poem and how to avoid the pitfall s
into which criticism ha s frequently fallen because of a lack of clarity on
some of these fundamental semi-philosophical questions .
To the question what and where is a poem, or rather a literary work
of art in general, several traditional answers have been given which mus t
be criticized and eliminated befor e we can attempt an answer of our own.
One of the most commo n and oldest answers is the view that a poem i s
an artifact, an object of the same nature as a piece of sculpture or a paint-
ing. Thus the work of art is considered identical with the black lines of ink
on white paper or parchment or, if we think o f a Babylonian poem, wit h
the grooves in the brick. Obviously this answer is quite unsatisfactory.
There is, first of all, the huge oral "literature" (a question-begging term in
its etymology). There are poems or stories which have never been fixed in
writing and still continue to exist. Thus the lines in black ink are merely
a method of recording a poem which must be conceived as existing else-
where. If we destroy the writin g or even all copie s of a printed book w e
still may not destroy the poem, as it might be preserved in oral tradition
or in the memory of a man like Macaulay who boasted of knowing Para-
dise Lost and Pilgrim's Progress by heart. On the other hand, if we destroy
a painting or a piece of sculpture or a building, we destroy it completely,
though we may preserve descriptions or records in another medium an d
might even try to reconstruct what has been lost. But we shall always cre-

72 RENEWELLEK The Mode of Existence of a Literary Work of Art 73

ate a different wor k of art (howeve r similar), while the mere destructio n ignored in those cases. Besides, the role of print in poetry is by no means
of the copy of a book or even of all its copies may not touch the work of art confined t o suc h comparativel y rar e extravaganzas, - th e line-end s of
at all. That the writing on the paper is not the "real" poem can be dem- verses, th e grouping into stanzas , th e paragraphs of prose passages, eye-
onstrated also by another argument. The printed page contains a great rhymes o r puns which ar e comprehensible onl y through spellin g and
many elements whic h ar e extraneous to the poem: th e size of the type, many similar devices must be considered integral factors of literary works
the sort of type used (roman, italic), the size of the page and many other of art. A purely oral theory tends to exclude all considerations of such de-
factors. If we should take seriously the view that a poem is an artifact, we vices, but they cannot be ignored in any complete analysis of many works
would have to come to the conclusion that every single copy is a different of literary art. Their existence merely proves that print has become very
work of art. There would be no a priori reason why copies in different edi- important for the practice of poetry in modern times, that poetry is writ-
tions should be copies of the same book. Besides, not every printing is con- ten for the eye as well as for the ear. Though the use of graphic devices is
sidered by us, the readers, a correct printing of a poem. The very fact that not indispensable, the y are far more frequent in literature than in music,
we are able to correct printer's errors in a text which we might not have where the printed score is in a position similar t o the printed page in po-
read before or, in some rare cases, restore the genuine meaning of the text etry. In music such uses are rare, though by no means non-existent. There
shows that we do not consider the printed lines as the genuine poem. In are many curious optical devices (colors, etc.) in Italian madrigal scores
accepting, for instance, Theobald' s emendation in the Hostess's story of of the sixteenth century . The supposedly "pure" composer Handel wrote
Falstaff's death from "a table of green fields" to "a babbled of green fields" a chorus speaking of the Red Sea flood where the "water stood like a wall"
we do not give rein to our imagination nor do we correct and criticize th e and the notes on the printed page of music form firm rows of evenly spaced
author as we should if we would change the color of a painting or chip off dots suggesting a phalanx or wall.
a piece of marble from a statue. We know that we have restored the genu- We have started with a theory which probably has not many serious
ine poem and that w e have corrected a way of recording. Thus w e have adherents today. The second answer to our original question puts the es-
shown that the poem (or any literary work of art) can exist outsid e it s sence o f a literary work of art int o th e sequenc e o f sounds uttered by a
printed versio n an d that the printed artifac t contain s man y element s speaker or reader of poetry. This is a widely accepted solution favored es-
which we all must consider as not included in the genuine poem. pecially by reciters. But the answer is equally unsatisfactory. Every read-
Still, thi s negative conclusion shoul d not blind us to the enormou s ing aloud or reciting of a poem is merely a performance of a poem and not
practical importance, sinc e the invention o f writing and printing, o f our the poem itself. It is on exactly the sam e level as the performance of a
methods of recording poetry. There is no doubt that much literature has piece of music by a musician. There isto follow the line of our previous
been lost and thus completely destroyed because its written records have argumenta huge written literature which may never be sounded at all.
disappeared an d th e theoreticall y possibl e means o f oral tradition hav e To deny this, we have to subscribe to some such absurd theory as that of
failed or have been interrupted. Writing and especially printing have made some behaviorists that all silent reading is accompanied by movements of
possible the continuity o f literary tradition and must have done much to the vocal cords. Actually, all experience shows that unless we are almost
increase the unity and integrity of works of art. Besides, at least in certain illiterate or are struggling with the reading of a foreign language or want
periods of the history of poetry, the graphic picture has become a part of to articulate th e soun d whisperingly o n purpose we usually rea d "glob-
some finished works of art. I am thinking o f such poems as the Altar or ally," that is, we grasp printed words as wholes without breaking them up
the Church-floor o f George Herbert or of similar poems of the metaphys- into sequences of phonemes an d thus do not pronounce the m eve n si-
icals which ca n be paralleled on the Continent i n Spanish Gongorism, lently. In reading quickly we have no time even to articulate the sound s
Italian Marinism, i n German Baroque poetry and elsewhere. Also mod- with our vocal cords. To assume besides that a poem exists in the reading
ern poetry in America (E . E. Cummings), in Germany (Arno Holz), in aloud leads to the absurd consequence that a poem is nonexistent when it
France (Apollinaire) and elsewhere, has used graphic devices like unusual is not sounded and that it is re-created afresh by every reading. Moreover,
line arrangements or even beginnings at the bottom of the page, different we could not sho w how a work like Homer's Iliad, o r Tolstoy's Wa r and
colors of printing, etc . In the nove l Tristram Shandy, Stern e used, as far Peace, exists as a unity as it can never be read aloud all in one sitting. But
back as the eighteenth century , blank and marbled pages. All such devices most importantly , ever y reading of a poem i s more tha n th e genuin e
are integral parts of these particular works of art. Though we know that a poem: eac h performance contains element s which are extraneous to the
majority of poetry is independent of them, they cannot and should not be poem an d individual idiosyncrasies o f pronunciation, pitch , temp o and
74 RENEWELLEK The Mode of Existence of a Literary Work of Art 75

distribution of stresselements which are either determined by the per- merable beeves" which, though only slightly different a s sound-pattern,
sonality of the speaker or are symptom s an d means of his interpretatio n completely alter s th e effec t o f the sound . Mr. I. A. Richards has mad e a
of the poem. Moreover, the reading of a poem not only adds individual ele- similar experiment by taking a stanza from Milton's Ode on Christ's Na-
ments but it always represents onl y a selection o f factors implicit i n th e tivity and rewriting it into nonsense words while keeping the meter and
text of a poem: the pitch of the voice, the speed in which a passage is read, the vowel patterns as closely as possible. The poetic sound-effect ha s al-
the distribution and intensity of the stresses, these may be either right or together disappeared. Another argument frequently quoted in support of
wrong, and even when right may still represent only one version of reading the paramount importance of sound is the fact that we enjoy the sound of
a poem. We must acknowledg e th e possibilit y o f several readings of a poetry read aloud in a foreign language, though we do not understand it s
poem: readings which we either consider wrong readings as we feel the m meaning. Actually, in hearing foreign poetr y recited we do not hea r
as distortions of the true meaning of the poem or readings which we have merely a sound-pattern, but the inflections of the voice, the changes of in-
to consider as correct and admissible, but still may not consider ideal. The tonation; th e gestures and physiognomy of the speaker convey much in -
reading of the poem is not the poem itself, as we can correct the perform- formation on meaning. All this does not deny that sound may be an im-
ance mentally. Even if we hear a recitation which we acknowledge to be portant factor in the structure of a poem, but the answer that a poem is a
excellent o r perfect we cannot preclude the possibility that somebody sequence of sounds is as unsatisfactory as the solution which puts faith
else, or even the sam e reciter a t anothe r time, ma y give a very differen t in the print on the page.
rendering which would bring out other elements of the poem equally well. The third, very common answer to our question says that a poem is
The analogy to a musical performance is again helpful: th e performance the experience of the reader. A poem, it is argued, is nothing outside th e
of a symphony even by Toscanini is not the symphony itself, as it is inev- mental processes of individual readers and is thus identical with the men-
itably colored by the individuality of the performers and adds concrete de- tal state or process which we experience in reading or listening to a poem.
tails of tempo, rubato, timbre, etc. which may be changed in a next per- Again this "psychological " solutio n seem s unsatisfactory . It is true , of
formance, though it would be impossible t o deny that the same symphony course, that a poem can be known only through individual experiences ,
has been performed for the secon d time. Thus we have shown that the but it is not identical with such an individual experience. Every individ-
poem ca n exist outsid e its sounde d performance , an d that th e sounde d ual experience of a poem contains something idiosyncratic and purely in-
performance contains many elements which we must consider as not in- dividual. It is colored by our mood and our individual preparation. The ed-
cluded in the poem. ucation, th e personality of every reader, the general cultural climat e of a
Still, i n some literary works of art (especiall y in lyrical poetry) th e time, the religious or philosophical or purely technical preconceptions of
vocal side of poetry may be an importan t facto r of the general structure . every reader will ad d something instantaneous an d extraneous to every
Attention ca n be drawn to it b y various means like meter, patterns of reading of a poem. Two readings at different times by the same individual
vowel or consonant sequences , alliteration, assonance , rhyme, etc. This may vary considerably either becaus e he has matured mentall y o r is
fact explainsor rather helps to explainthe inadequacy of much trans- weakened in his alertness by momentary circumstances suc h as fatigue,
lating o f lyrical poetry, since these potential sound-pattern s cannot b e worry, or distraction. Every experience of a poem thus both leaves ou t
transferred int o anothe r linguisti c system, thoug h a skillful translato r something or adds something individual . Th e experience wil l never b e
may approximate their general effec t i n his own language. There is, how- commensurate with the poem: eve n a good reader will discover new de-
ever, an enormous literature which is relatively independent of sound-pat- tails in poems which he had not experienced during previous readings and
terns, as can be shown by the historica l effects of many works in even pe- it is needless to point out how distorted or shallow may be the reading of
destrian translations. But the importanc e of sound-patterns, in lyrica l a less trained or untrained reader. The view that the mental experience of
poetry, has also been frequently overrate d for several reasons. One is the a reader is the poem itself leads to the absurd conclusion tha t a poem is
fact that most critics in speaking about the sound of poetry actually refe r nonexistent unles s experience d and that it is re-created in every experi-
to effects induced by meaning. Apart from the associations aroused by the ence. There thus would not be one Divine Comedy, bu t as many Divine
meaning most sound-structure s are , purely as sound, indifferent. Mr . Comedies as there are and were and will be readers. We end in complet e
John Crowe Ransom has demonstrated amusingly how much the soun d scepticism an d anarchy and arrive at the vicious maxim o f De gustibus
effect of Tennyson's verse depends on the meaning by suggesting a change non es t disputandum. I f we should take this view seriously it would be
from "th e murmurin g of innumerable bees" to "the murdering of innu- impossible to explain why one experience of a poem by one reader should
76 RENEWELLEK The Mode of Existence of a Literary Work of Art 77

be better than the experience of any other reader and why it is possible to time of his life after the creation of his work, when he rereads it. He then
correct the interpretation of another reader . It would mean th e definite has obviously become simply a reader of his work and is liable to errors
end of all teaching of literature which aims at enhancing the understand- and misinterpretations of his own work almost as much as any other
ing and appreciation of a text. The writing s of Mr. I. A. Richards, espe- reader. Many instances o f glaring misinterpretations b y an author o f hi s
cially hi s book on Practical Criticism, have shown how much ca n be own work could be collected: th e old anecdote about Browning professing
done in analyzing the individual idiosyncrasies of readers and how much not to understand his own poem has probably its element of truth. It hap -
a goo d teacher ca n achieve in rectifyin g fals e approaches . Curiously pens to all of us that we misinterpret o r do not fully understand what we
enough, Mr . Richards, who constantly criticize s the experience s o f his have written some time ago. Thus the suggested answer must refer to th e
pupils, holds to an extreme psychological theory which is in flat contra- experience of the author during the time of creation. By experience of th e
diction to his excellent critical practice. The idea that poetry is supposed author we might mean, however, two different things : th e conscious ex-
to order our impulses an d the conclusion that the value of poetry is in perience, the intentions which the author wanted to embody in his work,
some sort of psychical therapy leads him finally to the admission that this or the total conscious an d unconscious experienc e during the prolonged
goal may be accomplished by a bad as well as a good poem, by a carpet as time of creation. The view that the genuine poem is to be found in the in -
well as by a sonata. Thus th e suppose d pattern in ou r mind i s not defi - tentions of an author is widespread even though it is not always explicitly
nitely related to the poem which caused it. The psychology of the reader, stated. It justifies much historical research and is at the bottom of many
however interesting in itself o r useful fo r pedagogical purposes, will al- arguments in favor of specific interpretations. However, for most works of
ways remain outside the objec t o f literary studythe concrete work of art we have no evidence to reconstruct the intentions of the author except
artand is unable to deal with the question of the structure and value of the finished work itself. Even if we are in possession of contemporary ev -
the work of art. Psychological theories must be theories of effect an d may idence in the form of an explicit profession of intentions, suc h a professio n
lead in extrem e cases to such criteri a of the value of poetry as that pro- need not be binding on a modern observer. "Intentions" of the author ar e
posed by A. E. Housman in a lecture, Name and Nature of Poetry (1933), always a posteriori rationalizations, commentarie s which certainly must
where he tells us (one hopes with his tongue in his cheek) that good poetry be taken int o account but also must b e criticized in the light of the fin -
can be recognized by the thrill down our spine. This is on the same level ished work of art. The "intentions" of an author may go far beyond the fin -
as eighteenth-century theories which measured the qualit y of a tragedy ished work of art: the y may be merely pronouncements of plans and ide -
by the amount of tears shed by the audience or the movie scout's concep- als, while the performance may be either far below or far aside the mark.
tion of the quality of a comedy on the basis of the number of laughs he has If w e could have interviewed Shakespear e he probably would have ex-
counted in the audience. Thus anarchy, scepticism, a complete confusion pressed his intentions in writing Hamlet in a way which we should fin d
of values, is the result of every psychological theory , as it must be unre- most unsatisfactory. We would still quite rightly insist on finding mean-
lated either to the structure or the quality of a poem. ings in Hamlet (and not merely inventing them) which were probably far
The psychological theory is only very slightly improved by Mr. I. A. from clearly formulated in Shakespeare's conscious mind.
Richards when he defines a poem as the "experienc e o f the right kind of Artists may be strongly influenced by a contemporary critical situa-
reader/' Obviously the whole problem is shifted t o the conception o f the tion and by contemporary critical formulae while giving expression to
right readeran d the meaning of that adjective . Bu t even assuming a n their intentions, but the critical formulae themselves migh t be quite in-
ideal condition o f mood in a reader of the fines t backgroun d and the best adequate to characterize their actua l artistic achievement . Th e baroque
training, th e definition remains unsatisfactory as it i s open to all criti- age is an obvious case in point, where a surprisingly new artistic practice
cism we have made of the psychological method. It puts the essence of the found little expression either in the pronouncements of the artists or th e
poem into a momentary experience which eve n the right kind of reader comments o f the critics. A sculptor such as Bernini could lecture to th e
could not repeat unchanged. It will always fall short of the full meanin g Paris Academy expounding the view that his own practice was in stric t
of a poem at an y given instance an d will always add the inevitabl e per- conformity to that of the ancients, and Daniel Adam Poppelmann, the ar -
sonal elements to the reading. chitect of that highly rococo building in Dresden called the Zwinger,
A fourth answe r has been suggested to obviate this difficulty. Th e wrote a whole pamphlet in order to demonstrate the strict agreement of
poem, we hear, is the experience of the author . Only in parenthesis, we his creatio n wit h the purest principle s o f Vitruvius. Th e metaphysical
may dismiss the view that the poem is the experience of the author at any poets had only a few quite inadequat e critical formula e (lik e "strong
78 RENEWELLEK The Mode of Existence of a Literary Work of Art 79

lines") which scarcel y touch th e actual novelty of their practice; and periences of the poem: a solution which leaves us with an infinity of ir-
medieval artists frequently ha d purely religious or didactic ''intentions'7 relevant individual experiences, bad and false readings, perversions, etc.
which do not even begin to give expression to the artistic principles of In short, i t merel y gives us the answer that th e poem is in the stat e of
their practice . Divergence between conscious intention an d actual per- mind of its reader , multiplied b y infinity. Th e othe r answer I have seen
formance is a common phenomenon in the history of literature. Zola sin- suggested solves the question by stating that the genuine poem is the ex-
cerely believed in his scientific theory of the experimental novel, but ac- perience common to all the experiences of the poem. But this answer
tually produced highly melodramatic and symbolic novels. It is simply would obviously reduce the work of art to the common denominator of all
impossible t o rely on the stud y of the intention s o f an author, as they these experiences. This denominator must be the lowest commo n de-
might not even represent a reliable commentary on his work, and at their nominator, the most shallow , most superficia l and trivial experience.
best are not more than such a commentary.2 This solution, besides its practical difficulties, woul d completely impov-
But also the alternative suggestion: that the genuine poem is in the erish the total meaning of a work of art.
total experience, conscious and unconscious, during the time of the cre-
ation, i s very unsatisfactory. In practice this conclusion has the serious
disadvantage of putting th e proble m into a completely inaccessible an d
purely hypothetical x which we have no means of reconstructing or even
of exploring. Beyond this insurmountable practical difficulty, the solution An answer to our question in terms of individual or social psychology
is also unsatisfactory because it puts the existence of the poem into a sub- cannot, I am convinced, be found. A poem, we have to conclude, is not an
jective experience which already is a thing of the past. The experiences of individual experience or a sum of experiences, but only a potential cause
the author during creation ceased precisely when the poem had begun to of experiences. Definition in terms of states of mind fails because it can-
exist. If this conception were right, we should never be able to come into not account for the normative character of the genuine poem, for the sim-
direct contact with the work of art itself, but have constantly to make the ple fact that it might be experienced correctly or incorrectly. In every in-
assumption that our experiences in reading the poem are in some way dividual experience only a small part can be considered as adequate to the
identical with the long past experiences of the author. Mr. E. M. Tillyard true poem. Thus, the real poem must be conceived as a system of norms,
in his book on Milton has tried to use the idea that Paradise Lost is about realized only partially in the actual experience of its many readers. Every
the state of the author when he wrote it, and could not, in a long and fre- single experienc e (reading , reciting , an d s o forth) i s onl y an attempt
quently irrelevant exchange of arguments with C. S. Lewis, acknowledge more or less successful and completeto grasp this set of norms or stan-
that Paradise Lost is, first of all, about Satan and Adam and Eve and dards.
hundreds and thousands of different ideas , representations and concepts, The term "norms" as used here should not, o f course, be confuse d
rather than about Milton's state of mind during creation. That the whole with norm s which ar e either classica l o r romantic, ethica l or political.
content o f a poem was once in contac t with th e consciou s and subcon- The norms we have in mind are implicit norms which have to be extracted
scious mind of Milton is perfectly true, but this state of mind is inacces- from ever y individual experienc e o f a work of art an d together make up
sible and might have been filled, in those particular moments, with mil- the genuine work of art as a whole. It is true, that if we compare works of
lions of experiences of which we cannot find a trace in th e poem itself. art amon g themselves, similaritie s o r differences betwee n these norms
Taken literally, thi s whole solution must lead to absurd speculations will be ascertained, an d from th e similarities themselves i t ought to be
about the exact duration of the stat e of mind of the creator and its exact possible to proceed to a classification of works of art according to the type
content which might include a toothache at the moment of creation.3 The of norms they embody. We may finally arrive at theories of genres and ul-
whole psychological approac h through state s of mind whethe r o f th e timately at theories of literature in general. To deny this as it has been de-
reader or the listene r o r the speake r or the author raises more problems nied by those who, with some justification, stress the uniqueness of every
than it can possibly solve. work of art, seems t o push the conceptio n o f individuality so far that
A better way is obviously in the direction of defining the work of art every work of art woul d become completely isolated from traditio n and
in terms of social and collective experience. There are two possibilities of thus finally both incommunicable and incomprehensible. Assuming that
solution which, however, still fall short of solving our problem satisfactor- we have to start with the analysis of an individual work of art, we still can
ily. We may say that the work of art is the sum of all past and possible ex- scarcely deny that there must be some links, som e similarities, some
RENEWELLEK The Mode of Existence of a Literary Work of Art 81

common elements or factors which would approximate two or more given phological and syntactical questions as they were discussed in older gram-
works of art and thus would open the door to a transition from the analy- mars. The analysis of a literary work of art has to cope with parallel prob-
sis of one individual work of art to a type such as Greek tragedy and hence lems, wit h units of meaning an d their specifi c organizatio n towards
to tragedy in general, to literature in general, and finally to some all-inclu- aesthetic purposes . Such problems as those of poetic semantics and dic-
sive structure common to all arts. tion and imagery are reintroduced in a new and more careful restatemen t
But this is a further problem. We, however, have still to decide where which avoids the pitfall s of the psychological and impressionist ap -
and how these norms exist. A closer analysis of a work of art will show proaches. Units o f meaning, sentence s an d sentence-structure s refer t o
that it is best to think of it as not merely one system of norms, but rather objects, construc t imaginativ e realities suc h as landscapes, interiors,
a system which is made up of several strata, each implying its ow n sub- characters, actions, o r ideas. These also can be analyzed in a way which
ordinate group. There is a system of norms implied in the sound-structure does not confuse them with empirical reality and does not ignore the fact
of a literary work of art and this, in turn, implies units of meaning based that they inhere in linguistic structures. A figure in a novel or play grows
on the sentence patterns, and these units in their turn construct a world only out o f the units of meaning, i s made of the sentences either pro-
of objects to which the meaning refers. It is useful t o illustrate this con- nounced by the figure or pronounced about it. It has an indeterminate
ception b y the parallel which ca n be drawn from linguistics . Linguists structure i n compariso n with a biological person who has his coheren t
such as the Geneva school and the Prague Linguistic Circle carefully dis- past. Thus speculations about Hamlet's studies in Wittenberg or his fath-
tinguish betwee n langue and parole, the system of language and the in- er's influence on his youth, or the number of Lady Macbeth's children are
dividual speech-act; and this distinction corresponds to that between the shown as confusions between fiction and reality, of the same order as if a
individual experienc e of the poem and the poem as such. The system of spectator should try to find the continuation of a picture under its frame .
language is a collection o f conventions an d norms whose workings and The advantage of all these distinctions o f strata is that they supersede the
relations we can observe and describe as having a fundamental coherence age-old superficial and misleading distinction o f content an d form. Th e
and identity i n spit e o f the ver y different, imperfec t or incomplete pro- content will reappear in close contact with the linguistic substratum, in
nouncements o f individual speakers. In this respect at least, a literary which it is implied and on which it is dependent.
work of art is in exactly the same position as a system of language. We as But this conception of the literary work of art a s a stratified syste m
individuals shall never realize it completely as we shall never use our own of norm s still leaves undetermined th e actua l mode of existence of this
language completely and perfectly. The very same situation is actually ex- system. T o deal with thi s matter properly we should have to solve such
hibited in every single act of cognition. We shall never know an object in questions a s those of nominalism versu s realism, mentalism versus be-
all its qualities, but still we can scarcely deny the identity of objects even haviorism,in short , al l mai n problem s o f epistemology. For our pur-
though we may see them from differen t perspectives . We always grasp poses it will be, it seems, sufficient t o steer clear of two opposite pitfalls,
some "structure o f determination" i n the object which makes the act of of the Charybdis of Platonism and the Scylla of extreme nominalism as it
cognition not an act of arbitrary invention of subjective distinctions, bu t is advocated today by behaviorists and some positivists. There is no need
the recognition of some norms imposed on us by reality. Similarly th e to hypostatize or "reify" this system of norms to make it a sort of Platonic
structure of a work of art has the character of a "duty which I have to re- idea floating in a timeless void of essences. The literary work of art is not
alize." I shall always realize it imperfectly , bu t i n spit e of some incom- of the sam e ontological status as the idea of a triangle, or of a number, or
pleteness, a certain "structure of determination" remains , just as in any a quality like "redness." In difference fro m suc h "subsistences" the lit-
other object of knowledge. erary work of art is, first of all, created at a certain point in time, and sec-
ondly is subject to change and even complete destruction. In this respect
it rather resembles th e syste m of language, though the exact moment of
Just as modern linguists have analyzed the potential sounds as pho- creation or death is probably much less clearly definable in the case of lan-
nemes, the y can also analyze morphemes and syntagmas. The sentence , guage than with the literary work of art whic h is usually an individual
for instance, can be described not merely as an ad hoc utterance, but as a creation. Also language, of course, is no Platonic essence, immutable and
syntactic pattern. Outside of phonemics, modern functional linguistics is indestructible. O n the other hand, one should recognize that an extreme
still comparatively undeveloped, but th e problems, though difficult , ar e nominalism which rejects the concept of a "system of language" and thus
not insoluble or completely new: they are rather restatements o f the mor- of a work of art in our sense, or admits it only as a useful fiction or a "sci-
82 RENEWELLEK The Mode of Existence of a Literary Work of Art 83

entific description/ 7 misses the whole problem and the point at issue. All "Life." It arises at a certain point of time, changes in the course of history
these objections are founded o n the extremel y narrow preconception of and may perish. A work of art is "timeless" only in the sense that, if pre-
behaviorism which ; declares anything to be "mystical" or "metaphysi - served, it has some fundamental structure of identity since its creation ,
cal" whic h doe s not confor m to a very limited conception o f empirical but it i s "historical" too. It has a development which ca n be described.
reality. To call the phoneme a "fiction" o r the system of language merely This development is nothing but th e serie s of concretizations of a given
a "scientific description of speech-acts" is to ignore the problem of truth. work of art in the course of history which we may, to a certain extent, re-
We recognize norms and deviations from norms and do not merely devise construct fro m th e reports of critics and readers about their experiences
some purely verbal descriptions. The whole behaviorist point of view is, and judgments and the effec t o f a given work of art o n other works. Our
in this respect, based on a bad theory of abstraction. Numbers or norms consciousness of earlier concretizations (readings , criticisms, misinter -
are what they are whether we construct them or not. Certainly I perform pretations) will affec t ou r own experience: earlie r readings may educate
the counting, I perform the reading, but number-presentation or recogni- us to a deeper understanding or may cause a violent reaction against the
tion of a norm is not th e same as the number or norm itself. The pro- prevalent interpretations of the past. All this shows the importance of the
nouncement o f the sound h is not the phoneme h. We recognize some history of criticism, o r in linguistics, o f historical grammar, and leads to
structure o f norms within reality an d do not simpl y invent verba l con- difficult question s abou t the nature an d limits of individuality. Ho w far
structs. The objection that we have access to these norms only through can a work of art be said to be changed and still remain identical? The II-
individual acts of cognition and that w e cannot ge t out o f these acts or iad stil l "exists," that is, it can become again and again effective an d is
beyond them, is only apparently impressive. It is the objection which has thus differen t fro m a historical phenomeno n like the battle o f Waterloo
been made to Kant's criticism o f our cognition and can be refuted wit h which is definitely past, though its cours e may be reconstructed and its
the Kantian arguments. It is true we are ourselves liable to misunder- effects may be felt even today. In what sense can we, however, speak of an
standings and lack of comprehension o f these norms, but thi s does not identity between the Iliad as the contemporary Greeks heard or read it,
mean that th e critic assumes a superhuman role of criticizing our com- and the Iliad we now read? Eve n assuming that w e know the identica l
prehension from the outside or that he pretends to grasp the perfect whole text, our actual experience must be very different. We cannot contrast its
of the system of norms in some act of intellectual intuition . W e criticize language with the everyday language of Greece, and cannot therefore feel
rather a part of our knowledge in the light o f the higher standard set by the deviations fro m colloquial languag e on which much of the poetic ef-
another part. We are not supposed to put ourselves into the position of a fect must depend. We are unable to understand many verbal ambiguities
man who, in order to test his vision, tries to look at his own eyes, but into which are an essential part of every poet's meaning. Obviously it requires
the position of a man who compares the objects he sees clearly with those in addition some imaginative effort, which can have only very partial suc-
he sees only dimly, makes then generalizations as to the kinds of objects cess, to think ourselve s back into the Greek belief i n gods, or the Greek
which fall into the two classes, and explains the difference by some theory scale of moral values. Still, it could scarcely be denied that there is a sub-
of vision which takes account of distance, light, and so forth. stantial identit y o f structure which ha s remained the same throughout
Analogously, we can distinguish between right and wrong readings of the ages. This structure, however, is dynamic: it changes throughout the
a poem, or between a recognition or a distortion of the norms implicit i n process of history while passing through the minds of its readers , critics
a work of art by acts of comparison, by a study of different fals e or incom- and fellow artists. Thus the system of norms is growing and changing and
plete realizations. W e can study the actual workings, relations, an d com- will remain, i n som e sense , alway s incompletely an d imperfectly real-
binations of these norms, just as the phoneme can be studied. The literary ized. But this dynamic conception does not mean mere subjectivism and
work of art i s neither a n empirica l fact, i n th e sens e of being a state of relativism. All the different points of view are by no means equally right.
mind of any given individual or of any group of individuals, nor is it a n It will always be possible to determine which point of view grasps the sub-
ideal changeless object such as a triangle. The work of art may become an ject most thoroughly and deeply. A hierarchy of viewpoints, a criticism of
object of experience,- it is , we admit, accessibl e onl y through individua l the grasp of norms, is implied in the concept of the adequacy of interpre-
experience, but it is not identical with any experience. It differs from ideal tation. All relativism i s ultimately defeate d b y the recognition that th e
objects such as numbers precisely because it is accessible only through Absolute is in the relative, though not finally and fully in it.
the empirical part of its structure, the sound-system, while a triangle or a The work of art, then, appears as an object of knowledge sui generis
number can, I presume, be intuited directly. It also differs fro m ideal ob- which has a special ontological status. It is neither real (like a statue) nor
jects in one important respect . It has something whic h ca n be called mental (like the experience of light or pain) nor ideal (like a triangle). It is

a system of norms of ideal concepts which are intersubjective. They must

be assumed to exist i n collectiv e ideology, changin g with it, accessible
only through individual mental experiences , based on the sound-struc-
ture of its sentences.
Our interpretation of the literary work of art as a system of norms has
served its purpos e if it has suggested an argument against the insidiou s
psychological relativism which must always end in scepticism an d fi-
nally mental anarchy. It may also have demonstrated the truismo f
which w e cannot be reminded too frequentlythat al l problems, pur-
sued far enough, even in such an apparently concrete and limited field as
literary criticism, lead to ultimate questions an d decisions abou t the na-
ture of reality and truth, th e processes of our cognition and the motive s
of our actions.
We have avoided the problem of value: no distinction could be made
between a good and bad literary work of art i n our context. But I am con-
vinced that a profitable discussion of the problem of value and valuation
has to begin with the recognition of the work of art as a system of norms.

1. Par t of this paper is an elaboration of a passage in my''Theory of Literary His-
tory" (in the Jravaux d u Cercle Linguistique de Prague VI, 1936, 173-191 .
There detailed acknowledgements are made to the linguistic theories of the
Prague Linguistic Circle as well as to the logical theories of Edmund Husserl
and his Polish pupil Roman Ingarden.
2. Ther e can be no objections against the study of "intention," if we mean by it
merely a study of the integral work of art which would not ignore some ele-
ments an d would be directed to the total meaning. But this use of the ter m
"intention" is different an d somewhat misleading. [Author's note.] See "The
Intentional Fallacy," by W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. and M. C. Beardsley: Sewanee Re-
view, 54 (Summer, 1946), 458,488. And "A Note on Intentions" by R. W. Stall-
man: College English, 10 (October, 1948), 40-41. [Editor's note.]
3. M . Pierre Audiat, who, in his well-known Biographie d e 1'oeuvre litteraire
(1925), has argued that th e work of art "represent s a period in the lif e of the
writer," actually becomes involved in such impossible and quite unnecessary
dilemmas. [Author'snote.]