Thursday, July 9, 2009

Introduction: What is Literature?

Terry Eagleton begins his essay by putting forth the question: what is literature?
One definition which he suggests is "imaginative writing in the sense of fiction - writing which is not literally true". However, this definition can be rejected as seventeenth-century English Literature comprises of the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Marvell as well as the essays of Francis Bacon and the sermons of John Donne. Hobbes's "Leviathan" may also be regarded as literature. French literature contains not only Boileau's poetry but also the letters written by Madame de Sevigne for her daughter. It includes Bosseut's funeral speeches as well as hte philosophy of Pascal and Descartes.
Making distinctions between fact and fiction will not get us anywhere when it comes to defining what is literature. In the late sixteenth and early seventeeth century, the English novel contained both fictional as well as real events. The boundaries of fact and fiction are not very clearly defined. News reports cannot be considered to be completely factual. Literature can also not be simply defined as 'creative' or 'imaginative' writing as this would imply that history, philosophy and natural science are uncreative and unimaginative.

Literature may be defined in terms of its peculiar usage of language. According to Roman Jakobson, literature is a kind of writing which represents an 'ordinary violence committed on ordinary speech'.
  • Literature transforms and intensifies ordinary language.
  • It deviates systematically from everyday speech.
Terry Eagleton then talks about the Formalist stand for literature. The Formalists believed in the application of linguistics to the study of literature. They gave more importance to the language used than to what was said i.e. they gave more importance to the form than to the content. According to them, it is the form which gives content the meaning.
According to the Formalists, literature was a particular organization of language. It had its own specific laws, structures and devices which were to be studied in themselves and not reduced to something else.
For the Formalists,
  • Literary work was not a vehicle for ideas.
  • It was not a reflection of social reality.
  • It did not speak of any transcendental truth.
  • IT WAS A MATERIAL FACT MADE UP OF WORDS and not of objects or feelings.
  • It is not an expression of an author's mind.
First, the Formalists saw literary work as only an assemblage of devices. Later, they came to see these devices as inter-related elements or 'functions' within a textual system.

Devices = Sound, Imagery, Rhythm, Syntax, Metre, Narrative Techniques...It includes all forms of formal literary elements which had a 'defamiliarizing' effect.
These literary devices intensified, condensed, twisted, telescoped ordinary language. It was language 'made strange'.
Literary discourse alienates ordinary speech. Literature is a special kind of language.
Therefore, for the Formalists, literary language was a deviation from the normal. It was a kind of linguistic violence.

Terry Eagleton critiques this Formalist understanding of Literature. His arguments are:
  1. The idea of a single 'normal' language existing amongst all members of society is an illusion. (One person's norm may be someone else's deviation).
  2. The Formalists do not define 'literature'. Rather, they defined 'literariness' i.e. special uses of language which, in reality, can be found not only in 'literary' texts but also many places outside it.
  3. If a piece of language is considered 'estranging', it is so only for a certain group of people.
  4. There are 'literary' devices used even in daily discourse. However, for the Formalists, 'making strange' was the essence of the literary.
  5. Formalists leave the definition of literature up to how somebody decides to read a text, not to the nature of what is written.
    A work is considered to be 'literature' if it is accepted as 'fine writing'. However, if literature is a highly valued kind of writing, one must remember that values change with time, and across cultures.
  6. For Formalists, literature should evoke disturbances. The mtter should be condensed in a manner that it appeals to the reader...Formalists think of all literature as poetry but literature also comprises of other genres like novels, realistic or naturalistc writing.
Terry Eagleton admits that many texts taught as 'literature' in academic institutions were constructed to be read as a literary text and many were not. Many writing started off as history or philosophy and were later ranked as literature.
By and large, people term 'literature' writing as writing which is good. Literature is a highly valued kind of writing. Therefore, the categorization of a text as literature is highly subjective. Literature is defined by power-structures, and is relative to time.

We always interpret literary works to some extent in the light of our own concerns - which is one reason why certain works of literature have retained their value across the centuries.
All literary works are re-written by the societies which read them.
Even when something is stated as a fact, that statement is open to questionable judgements. Like it was earlier said, values are culture-specific; in the same way, facts are constructed by societies based on the ideologies and power structures which operate.

Terry Eagleton concludes by saying that we cannot regard literature as an 'objective' descriptive category nor can we say that literature is just what people choose to call 'literature'. Value-judgement has its roots in deeper structures of beliefs and therefore, it is not based on whims and fantasies. Value-judgements have a close relation to social ideologies - they do not refer only to private tastes but also to the assumptions by which certain social groups exercise and maintain power over others.


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