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A New Handbook of Literary Terms offers a lively, informative guide to words and concepts that every student of literature needs to know. Mikics’s definitions are essayistic, witty, learned, and always a pleasure to read. They sketch the derivation and history of each term, including especially lucid explanations of verse forms and providing a firm sense of literary periods and movements from classicism to postmodernism. The Handbook also supplies a helpful map to the intricate and at times confusing terrain of literary theory at the beginning of the twenty-first century: the author has designated a series of terms, from New Criticism to queer theory, that serves as a concise but thorough introduction to recent developments in literary study.
Mikics’s Handbook is ideal for classroom use at all levels, from freshman to graduate. Instructors can assign individual entries, many of which are well-shaped essays in their own right. Useful bibliographical suggestions are given at the end of most entries. The Handbook’s enjoyable style and thoughtful perspective will encourage students to browse and learn more. Every reader of literature will want to own this compact, delightfully written guide.
abject, abjection In the early 1980s, the French literary theorist Julia Kristeva introduced the concept of abjection. According to Kristeva, the abject is neither subject nor object, but something that precedes the making of the human self. Abjection is often associated with repulsive or disgusting substances that occupy the border between the self and the world outside it: vomit, excrement. These elements grow into monstrous, anti-human presences that seem to threaten life and must therefore be destroyed, or at least repressed. Paradoxically, the effort to exclude the abject represents, for Kristeva, a revolt against what gives us being: the body of the mother.
In horror and science fiction stories and films, from H. P. Lovecraft to the Alien movies, the monster that must be abjected (that is, somehow escaped or defeated) is frequently an amorphous, vaguely maternal, looming and terrible presence: "one of those violent, dark revolts of being" (Kristeva). See Kristeva, Powers of Horror (1980).
absurd An absurd situation is one that is discordant, incongruous, and illogical. The sense that human existence remains inherently absurd,supremely challenging in its apparent meaninglessness, is significant to certain twentieth-century writers and philosophers: Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre (see, for example, Camus's Myth of Sisyphus ).
The actor and writer Antonin Artaud gave the absurd a central role in the theater. In The Theatre and Its Double (1938), Artaud championed a dreamlike, or nightmarish, form of theater that would assault the audience like a plague or a fever. (See THEATER OF CRUELTY.) The playwrights Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco were two later authors of what was sometimes called the theater of the absurd. Ionesco, describing Kafka's universe, defined the absurd as "that which is devoid of purpose," and added, "Cut off from his metaphysical, religious, and transcendental roots, man is lost: all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless."
Ionesco's definition suggests that the conviction of life's absurdity follows from what Nietzsche called the "death of God," with the result that humans inhabit a desacralized universe, one without divine plan or purpose. Yet a religious yearning often characterizes the absurdist mood. In Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1953), two tramps wait for a mysterious Godlike figure, Godot, who may or may not arrive; they beguile the time with inventive, desperate, and grotesquely melancholy comic routines.
Jerome Rothenberg remarks that the absurd resembles the dream in Surrealism: it "serves as the great simplifying image, which allows for direct presentation of conflicting impulses." Such directness is allied with the modern inclination toward immanence and disturbing intimacy in art. See Jerome Rothenberg, "A Dialogue on Oral Poetry with William Spanos," Boundary 2:3 (Spring 1975), 509-48. Martin Esslin's The Theatre of the Absurd (1961) is a very useful overview.
accommodation In theology, the practice of describing the ineffable attributes of God in earthly, graspable terms. This effort must fail, since God remains by definition beyond our intellectual capacities; but accommodated description is necessary for our appreciation of the divine. So God is accommodated to human understanding by being conceived in terms we can know: in the Gospel of John, we are told that "God is light" (John 1:5).
In Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), the poet relies on accommodation, translating the unimaginable immensities of heavenly time and space into the earthly features that we humans are familiar with. (Milton's angel Raphael describes the war in heaven to Adam by "likening spiritual to corporal forms" [5.573].)
act A basic unit of drama. Most stage plays are divided into acts, which are in turn divided into scenes. The beginning of a new act is frequently marked by a change of setting, the commencing of a new narrative thread, or a shift to a different group of characters (as well as, often, an intermission). The plays of Shakespeare and other Renaissance dramatists are usually divided into five acts.
Gorboduc (1565) is an early example of five-act structure in the English theater. The five-act division was adopted in Elizabethan drama in imitation of the Roman philosopher and playwright Seneca the Younger (ca. 4 BCE-65 CE), whose works were published in English as Tenne Tragedies (1581), securing their importance for Elizabethan playwrights. Horace, in Ars Poetica (Art of Poetry, ca. 20 BCE), another influential work in the Renaissance, remarks that tragedies "should not be produced beyond the fifth act."
Many modern plays (those of Chekhov and Ibsen, for example) tend to have four acts. Still more recently, dramatists have structured their plays as a sequence of scenes, rather than relying on act division; some dramatists, like Samuel Beckett, have written plays consisting of a single scene. See Wilfred Jewkes, Act Division in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, 1583-1616 (1958), and T. W. Baldwin, Shakespeare's Five-Act Structure (1963).
aestheticism (From the Greek aisthein, to perceive; aisthetes, one who perceives.) Aestheticism means relying on seeing, the refined use of the eye. Seeing thus becomes realized thinking: present and palpable because it issues in sight. The practice of aestheticism was defined most memorably by the essayist Walter Pater, in the conclusion to his book The Renaissance (1873). Pater champions the idea of life as a work of art, trying to see in our experiences "all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses." He urges us "to pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus ..." "To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame," Pater concludes, "to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life."
To embrace life as well as art for the intensity and beauty they have to offer is the desire that unites the writers who are called aesthetes. Pater and his immediate ancestor John Ruskin share the aim of creating in the observer of art, and of life, an appropriately heightened and refined consciousness of beauty. Pater also argues that we ought to resist society's moralizing demands, which get in the way of aesthetic appreciation. This rejection of moralizing becomes positively extravagant in Pater's disciple Oscar Wilde, who claimed that "all art is perfectly useless": that the perfecting of art, and of life-as-art, requires an indifference to the sober ideals of moral responsibility. Among the nineteenth-century continental European writers allied to aestheticism in one way or another are Théophile Gautier, J. K. Huysmans, Charles Baudelaire, and Gustave Flaubert.
The slogan of aestheticism is "art for art's sake"-oft-maligned by critics who prefer literature to subordinate itself to moral, political, or philosophical agendas. (The anxious wish for literature to be guided by philosophy, with its supposedly superior thoughtfulness, begins with Plato.)
The aesthetic poets, who were given this name by Pater, include William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and others associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood from the 1840s on; they were major influences on the early work of W. B. Yeats (1865-1939). See also ANTITHETICAL and DECADENCE.
aesthetics Aesthetics, as a modern discipline, was inaugurated by the German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in 1735. Its most influential proponent was Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment (1790; the "third critique," following his critique of pure reason and his critique of practical reason). For Kant, aesthetic judgment is based on an experience of pleasure that claims universal validity, rather than being an idiosyncratic preference. When I say, "Cezanne's paintings are supremely beautiful," I imply that I am expecting, or at least can argue for, your agreement with my sentiment. Furthermore, aesthetics justifies itself not by reference to rules but by evoking in us what Kant calls the harmony of faculties. There is no particular property in a beautiful object that makes it aesthetically pleasing (i.e., it is not beautiful because it is symmetrical, just large enough, or because of any other rule-based criterion). Instead, Kant argues, the object's beauty resides in its stimulating of our imaginative feeling. This feeling then interacts with the impulse on the part of understanding to claim universal status for the object as beautiful. We experience the harmony or "free play" of two faculties, imagination and understanding. (See Ted Cohen and Paul Guyer, eds., Essays in Kant's Aesthetics .) Among the significant twentieth-century writers on aesthetics are Roger Fry, Clement Greenberg, Susanne Langer, and Theodor Adorno.
affective fallacy In their book The Verbal Icon (1954), W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley criticized what they called the affective fallacy: evaluating a literary work by describing the emotions aroused in its readers. Whereas the intentional fallacy confuses a literary work with its origin or cause, the author's intention (and is therefore a variety of the broader "genetic fallacy"), the affective fallacy, Wimsatt and Beardsley write, confuses a work with its result. (See INTENTIONAL FALLACY.)
Before Wimsatt and Beardsley, I. A. Richards's Practical Criticism (1929) had outlined some of the untutored subjective responses that a naive reader might have to a literary work. Richards wanted to distinguish what can be explained and argued concerning a text (that is, a properly interpretive response) from what can only be felt or proclaimed (a merely affective response). Describing the feeling that a text gives us, Richards suggested, is different from, and inherently far less interesting than, explaining what it means. A reader's feeling does not offer itself up for critical debate as an interpretive explanation does. For all that, Richards devoted himself to investigating the emotions of an untaught reader when confronted by a poem, as if these were somehow telling for the more educated reader.
Wimsatt and Beardsley are less interested than Richards in the feelings provoked in naive readers by a text. They write that "the report of some readers ... that a poem or story induces in them vivid images, intense feelings, or heightened consciousness, is neither anything which can be refuted nor anything which it is possible for the objective critic to take into account." Instead, criticism ought to explore how literary narratives suggest emotions that are "presented in their objects and contemplated as a pattern of knowledge." Here Wimsatt and Beardsley return to an Aristotelian emphasis on how emotions are produced in an audience by means of literary structure and, as well, by means of the socially recognizable connotations of the matters that a work describes (a murder, a noble family).
agitprop An amalgam of the words agitation and propaganda, agitprop is didactic and propagandistic literature such as was produced by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution of 1917. Leon Trotsky's Literature and Revolution (1924) advocates the use of literature as agitprop. Trotsky wrote that "each class has its own policy in art": "The proletarian has to have in art the expression of the new spiritual point of view which is just beginning to be formulated within him, and to which art must help him give form. This is not a state order, but a historic demand."
agon In Greek, a struggle or contest, whether physical or verbal. Examples are the bitter argument between Jason and Medea in Euripides' Medea (431 BCE), or between Achilles and Agamemnon in Homer's Iliad. Harold Bloom has applied the term agon to the struggle between authors, with a later author striving to define himself or herself against an earlier one. Keats's agon with Milton, for instance, is exemplified in his rebellious statement about the author of Paradise Lost: "Life to him would be death to me." An ancient example of authorial agon occurs in Aristophanes' comic drama The Frogs (405 BCE) when Aeschylus debates Euripides, each trying to prove that he is the better dramatist.
aleatory From Latin alea, a dice game; by extension, chance or hazard. An aleatory work is dependent on chance or randomness. Some significant modern artists who have used aleatory techniques in their work are the musician John Cage and the writer William Burroughs. Characteristically, aleatory art involves the kind of random events produced through a set of rules, rather than mere raw spontaneity: Burroughs used the technique of cut-ups (scraps of text collated with arbitrary rigor); Cage threw the I Ching to determine the position of musical notes. In France, the Oulipo movement designed a series of games and exercises devoted to the production of aleatory literature. (See OULIPO.)
The aleatory may be attractive to writers because it promises a liberation, even if a momentary one, from the bondage to tradition and from the thoughtful, conscious working out and working through that writing usually requires. By using aleatory techniques authors hope to abstract their words from the burden of their usual meanings, and also from associations with earlier tradition. As with some other kinds of avant-garde art, aleatory experiments run the risk of being more interesting to the writer than to the reader.
Alexandrian Alexandrian literature (also called Hellenistic literature) was written in Greek from the fourth to the first centuries BCE. This literary culture had its center in the Egyptian city of Alexandria during the reign of the Ptolemies. Alexandrian works frequently feature elaborate mythological allusions, a polished surface, and a slender, elegant style. Among the major Alexandrian poets are Apollonius Rhodius, author of the Argonautica, an epic on Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece, and Theocritus, a writer of pastorals from Syracuse, one of the Greek colonies in Sicily (both third century BCE).
The terse, splendid Alexandrian poet Callimachus contributed a major slogan, useful for laconic writers of the future: Mega biblion, mega kakon (big book, big evil).
It could be argued that a new Alexandrianism, refusing the large work and prizing the fractured and miniature, characterizes certain present-day literary forms: poetry after modernism, for example. In the early twentieth century, the discoveries achieved by Sigmund Freud and by writers like Guillaume Apollinaire suggested that the fullest revelation of the self might come in elliptical, oblique fragments, snatches of dreams. So current American poetry often sees the most pregnant meanings residing in the tiniest flicks of thought, the most broken impressions-and the shortest poems. (See Alan Williamson, Introspection and Contemporary Poetry .)
Alexandrine The Alexandrine goes iambic pentameter one better by adding a foot, so that each line contains six feet instead of the more usual five. To great effect, Spenser uses a snaky, languorous Alexandrine as the final line of each stanza of his mammoth epic romance, The Faerie Queene (1590-96); and Milton echoes Spenser by doing the same in his Nativity Ode (1629). The Alexandrine is also the predominant form of French verse, culminating in the heroic oeuvre of Victor Hugo (1802-85); see Jacques Barzun, An Essay on French Verse (1991). See also meter; Spenserian stanza.
alienation The basic category of Karl Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. According to Marx, capitalism requires (and produces) alienated labor. That is, bosses and owners purchase labor from workers, who see the work that they "sell" to the owners as fundamentally separate from themselves. The worker who performs alienated labor is aware that his bodily and mental capacities have been rented by the bosses. As a result, he finds himself unable to identify with the product of his work. The worker under capitalism therefore remains at the opposite pole from the creative artist or craftsman, who proudly identifies with the end result of his labor.
Excerpted from A NEW HANDBOOK OF LITERARY TERMS by DAVID MIKICS Copyright © 2007 by Yale University . Excerpted by permission.
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Posted August 3, 2010
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