the Concept of Literature

Literary history and the concept of literature I From the 1970s onwards, much has been said about the writing of history and literary history that has cast doubt on its intellectual credibility. For example, Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973) included an influential analysis of the metaphorical foundations of 19th century history writing. In 1979, Jean-Francois Lyotard criticized grand narratives in La Condition postmoderne (The Postmodern Condition), and in 1992 David Perkins presented a whole array of sceptical epistemological and methodological arguments directed against literary history in Is Literary History Possible?.

The questioning of literary history has not however resulted in the abandonment of large-scale literary-historical projects, rather it has inspired attempts to base such ventures on better designs and better foundations. Not least, many new ideas about the field have been put forward in connection with the preparation of two major works of literary history sponsored by the ICLA. It is also natural to point to two theoretical publications from 2002: the collection of essays, Rethinking Literary History, edited by Linda Hutcheon and Mario J.

Valdes, and Marcel Cornis-Pope and John Neubauer’s brief presentation of the ideas behind a history of literary cultures in East-Central Europe. [ii] The Swedish project “Literature and Literary History in Global Contexts”, which was started in 1998 and will terminate in 2004, focuses specifically on some theoretical problems associated with the writing of literary history. We who participate come, mostly, from various fields within oriental studies or from comparative literature. Since the project is sponsored by the Swedish Research Council we all work, or once worked, at various Swedish universities.

One of the special features of the project is the interest devoted to world histories of literature, a genre where the general problems of literary history become especially visible and acute. (I shall return to this perhaps unfamiliar genre in a moment. ) Three important cruces in connection with world histories of literature have been singled out for special discussion within the project: (i) the understanding of the notion of literature, (ii) the understanding of genres, and (iii) the understanding of interactions between literary cultures.

These three sets of issues will be made the subject of four volumes of literary-historical studies and theoretical reflections, and these volumes will represent the main concrete outcome of the project. In this paper, I shall concentrate on the first of the questions, about the notion of literature. I shall say a few words about the concept of literature itself, point out some of the difficulties that it occasions in a world history of literature, and conclude with a brief discussion of how such problems may be approached and dealt with. II

In a sense, of course, there are very many concepts of literature: if every nuance is taken into account, it may well be the case that each person has their own. Yet if, conversely, one looks at the situation very broadly, one can say that there is an everyday concept of literature in Western culture which is widely shared. That concept came into being in the course of the 18th century. Before that, no exact counterpart to our present concept of literature existed either in Western culture or elsewhere, and the distinction between imaginative literature and non-fiction was not of primary importance in the classification of texts.

Wilt Idema and Lloyd Haft have given a concise and clarifying account of how earlier cultures thought about texts and their basic divisions. As long as no more than a few written works are in circulation in a given society, all texts are more or less equally important and valuable. If there is a dramatic increase in the number of writings, with a corresponding differentiation in their content and character, the texts are likely to be subdivided into the categories of “high” literature, professional literature, and popular literature.

“Literature” (or high literature) is then the term for texts which are felt to be of general educational value and which are, accordingly, regarded as part of the necessary intellectual baggage of every cultured person…. Works which contain useful knowledge but remain limited to one specific area, such as medicine or military science, are classified as professional literature. Works intended only to amuse, and which have (or are considered to have) no educational value, fall outside the scope of “literature”…. We may call these more or less despised writings “trivial literature”.

In the kind of intellectual culture described in this quotation, the fundamental distinction among texts is the one between culturally important texts and culturally less significant ones. In most such cultures – classical antiquity, classical Chinese culture, classical Sanskrit culture, and so forth – the class of culturally important texts would comprise most of what we call poetry, history writing, and philosophy, and normally also other kinds of texts – some administrative texts, some texts concerning magic, some letters, et cetera.

Oral vernacular texts, or relatively unadorned fictional narratives, what we call fictional prose, would normally form part of popular or trivial literature. For complex social, economic, and cultural reasons, this way of classifying texts came to undergo great though gradual transformations in Western Europe from the late 17th to the early 19th centuries. One of the very many crucial factors behind the process must have been the growing importance of a new, more rigorous conception of empirical truth, associated with the natural sciences.

High literature, in the special sense described by Idema and Haft, had always aspired to truth in the sense of great human significance. As the distinction between empirical truth and empirical non-truth became more rigid and more significant – and as many other, more or less related developments were taking place – new groupings began to emerge in the textual universe. Poetry became dissociated from scientific writings, and successively also from history, philosophy, oratory, and letters. On the other hand, fictional prose, especially in the guise of the increasingly appreciated novel, came to be regarded as one of the genres of poetry.

With this, our modern notion of literature had effectively taken shape, and the term “literature” (whose main meaning in the 17th and 18th centuries had been something like “education” or “culture”) successively developed into today’s normal designation of the concept. [v] III The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the beginning of the writing of literary history – of the history of national European literatures, of the history of European literature as a whole and, at least from the 1830s onwards, of the world history of literature.

World histories of literature thus comprise a genre which has existed for around 170 years. Among its modern instances are such impressive works as the German twenty-five volume Neues Handbuch der Literaturwissenschaft (New Handbook of Literary Studies), published between 1972 and 2002, and the Russian Istorija vsemirnoj literatury v devjati tomach (History of World Literature in Nine Volumes) from 1983-94. [vii] However in the English-speaking world the genre is more or less extinct, and its very existence appears to be overlooked in the contemporary international discussion about the globalization of literary studies.

These debates are primarily inspired by the widespread interest in colonial and postcolonial studies and place the last few centuries at the centre of attention, while the traditional world histories of literature are, in principle, universal in scope, and are meant to cover all times and cultures. In many respects, it seems a good idea to have a world history of literature to fall back on. Such works can relate the various literary cultures of the world to one another and put them into perspective. Thus they may create a much needed overview, much as a map of the world helps us to comprehend certain fundamental geographical realities.

To some extent, works like the Neues Handbuch der Literaturwissenschaft and the Istorija vsemirnoj literatury do just that, and of course they also contain a wealth of information and intelligent discussion. Yet, despite their often remarkable qualities, world histories of literature are typically profoundly problematic for a number of reasons. Two major problems have their roots in the very concept of literature. First, the concept is, in itself, an everyday notion. If employed without additional explications or stipulations, it is too imprecise and inconsistent to form the basis of a reasonable classification.

Second, the concept of literature is a relatively recent Western invention. Its application to other times and cultures will easily lead to anachronistic and ethnocentric distortions. On the whole, world histories of literature are content to sweep such problems under the carpet. They typically prefer to rely on the everyday notion of literature and to include the resulting contradictions in the bargain. For instance, the concept of literature is traditionally used in such a manner that the criteria for a work to be classified as literature vary depending on the time and the culture one is speaking of.

Modern literature is most often seen as consisting of just fictional prose, poetry, and drama. When there is talk of older periods, the concept of literature is however used very inclusively. [ix] For example, ancient Roman philosophy, history, and oratory are not excluded as being non-fiction; instead, such writers as Lucrece, Caesar, and Cicero are considered part of the European literary heritage. The same duality appears in the treatment of other literary cultures. Thus, for instance, the sacred Vedic texts (circa 1200 – circa 500 B. C.).