Theory of Literature

Theory of Literature

by Paul H. Fry

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Bringing his perennially popular course to the page, Yale University Professor Paul H. Fry offers in this welcome book a guided tour of the main trends in twentieth-century literary theory. At the core of the book's discussion is a series of underlying questions: What is literature, how is it produced, how can it be understood, and what is its purpose?


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Bringing his perennially popular course to the page, Yale University Professor Paul H. Fry offers in this welcome book a guided tour of the main trends in twentieth-century literary theory. At the core of the book's discussion is a series of underlying questions: What is literature, how is it produced, how can it be understood, and what is its purpose?

Fry engages with the major themes and strands in twentieth-century literary theory, among them hermeneutics, modes of formalism, semiotics and Structuralism, deconstruction, psychoanalytic approaches, Marxist and historicist approaches, theories of social identity, Neo-pragmatism and theory. By incorporating philosophical and social perspectives to connect these many trends, the author offers readers a coherent overall context for a deeper and richer reading of literature.

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Theory of Literature



Copyright © 2012 Yale University
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ISBN: 978-0-300-18336-8

Chapter One

Introduction The Prehistory and Rise of "Theory"


Passages from Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Paul Ricoeur.

Let me begin with a few remarks about the title of our course because it has some big words in it: "theory" and "literature," clearly, but it's worth saying something about the word "introduction" as well.

The word "theory" has a complicated etymological history that I won't linger over except to point out what can make its meaning confusing. The way the word has actually been used at certain periods has made it mean something like what we call "practice," whereas at other periods it has meant something very different from practice: a concept to which practice can appeal. This latter is the sense of theory that prevails today, but perhaps we accept it too quickly. Whereas for us the difference between theory and practice goes without saying, there's a less obvious difference between theory and methodology. Yes, it's probably fair enough to say that methodology is "applied theory," but that makes it like practice—call it disciplined practice—in the sense I just used. Theory, on the other hand, does not always have an immediate application. Theory can be a purely speculative undertaking. It's a hypothesis about something, the exact nature of which one needn't necessarily have in view because theory itself may serve to bring it into view. Whatever the object of theory might be, if it even has one, theory itself requires—owing to whatever intellectual constraints may be in play—a large measure of internal coherence rather more urgently than a given field of application.

Of course there is no doubt that most existing forms of theory do exist to be applied. Very frequently, courses of this kind have a kind of proof text—Lycidas, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a short story—and then once in a while the exposition of the lecture will pause, the text will be produced, and whatever type of theory has recently been talked about will be applied to the text; so that you'll get a postcolonial reading or a trauma theory reading of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner—there have been a lot of good ones, by the way—and so on throughout the course.

Now although I'm reluctant to say that theory should always have an application despite knowing that that's what usually happens, I won't depart from this custom; but I'll poke a little respectful fun at it by making it seem, at least at times, like breaking a butterfly on a wheel. Our text is a story for toddlers called Tony the Tow Truck. It's a little book made of thick cardboard pages with a line of text at the bottom, each page a picture of vehicles with human expressions and a row of houses with human faces expressing approval or disapproval in the background. We won't come back to this text for a while, but it's mercifully short, and as time passes we will do various tricks with it. As others revert to Lycidas, we shall revert to Tony the Tow Truck for the purpose of introducing questions of applied theory.

In this choice there is hardly any condescension toward theory and none at all toward literary texts. It's much more a question of reminding you that if you can apply theory to Tony, you can apply it to anything; and also of reminding you that, after all, reading—reading just anything—is a complex and potentially almost unlimited activity. That's one of the most important things that theory teaches us, and I hope to be able to prove it in the course of our varied approaches to Tony the Tow Truck.

Theory resembles philosophy, especially metaphysics, perhaps in this: it asks fundamental questions and also at times builds systems. That is to say, theory aims at a general description of what can be thought that resembles or rivals philosophy. But literary theory as practiced in the twentieth century and beyond differs in most instances from most philosophy in that to a surprising extent it entails skepticism. In literary theory there seems to be a pervasive variety of doubts about the foundations of what we can think, and it is certainly doubt that characterizes its modern history. Not all theory that we read in this course is skeptical. Some of the most powerful and profound thought that's been devoted to the theory of literature is positive in its intentions and its views, but by and large you will be coming to terms—happily or unhappily—with the fact that much of what you're going to find in the recommended readings accompanying this course is under-girded, or perhaps I should say undermined, by this persisting skepticism. It's centrally important, the skepticism of theory, and I'm going to be coming back to it over and over, but now I mention it just in passing to evoke what we might call the atmosphere of theory.

Turning to the word "literature," this is not a course in theory of relativity, theory of music, or theory of government. This is a course in theory of literature, and theory of literature shares in common with other kinds of theory the need for definition. Maybe the most fundamental and, for me, possibly the most fascinating question theory asks is, what is literature? Much of what we'll be reading takes up this question and provides us with fascinating and always—each in its turn—enticing definitions. There are definitions based on form: circularity, symmetry, economy of form, lack of economy of form, and repetition. There are definitions based on imitation: of "nature," of psychological or sociopolitical states, definitions appealing to the complexity, balance, harmony, or sometimes imbalance and disharmony of the imitation. There are also definitions that insist on an epistemological difference between literature and other kinds of utterance: whereas most utterances purport to be saying something true about the actual state of things in the world, literary utterance is under no such obligation, the argument goes, and ought properly to be understood as fiction—making things rather than referring to things.

All of these definitions have had currency. We'll be going over them again and discovering their respective merits as we learn more about them; but at the same time, even as I rattle off this list of possibilities, you're probably thinking that you could easily find exceptions to all such claims. Well and good, that's properly ecumenical of you, but at the same time your tough-mindedness raises the uneasy sense, does it not, that maybe literature just isn't anything at all?—in other words, that literature may not be susceptible to definition, to any one definition, but is just whatever you think it is or, more precisely, whatever your interpretive community says that it is. But even if you reach that conclusion, it won't seem disabling as long as you remember that certain notions of literature do exist in certain communities, that those notions in themselves reward study, and that after all you yourself know perfectly well, and for practical purposes agree with, what counts as literature among your peers. I have just outlined the so-called neo-pragmatist view of literature and of definition in general, but it doesn't excuse us from delineating an object of study. Definition is important to us, even if it's provisional, and we're certainly not going to give it short shrift in this course.

In addition to defining literature, literary theory also asks questions that open up the field somewhat. What causes literature and what are the effects of literature? As to cause, we ask: What is an author? And what is the nature of literary authority? By the same token, if literature has effects, it must have effects on someone, and this gives rise to the equally interesting and vexing question, what is a reader? Literary theory is very much involved with questions of that kind, and the need to organize these questions is what rationalizes the structure of our course. You'll notice from the contents that we move in these lectures from the idea that literature is formed by language to the idea that literature is formed by the human psyche to the idea that literature is formed by social, economic, and historical forces. There are corollaries for those ideas with respect to the kinds of effects that literature has, and the course moves through these corollaries in the same sequence.

Finally, literary theory asks one other important question, the one with which we'll begin before turning to form, psyche, and society. This question is not so much "What is a reader?" but "How does reading get done?" That is to say, how do we—how does anyone—form the conclusion that we are interpreting something adequately, that we have a basis for the kind of reading that we're doing? What is the reading experience like? How do we meet the text face-to-face? How do we put ourselves in touch with the text, which may in many ways be remote from us? These are the questions that are asked by what's called hermeneutics, a difficult word that we will be taking up soon. It derives from the name of the god Hermes, who conveyed language to man and who was, among many other things, the god of communication.

So much then for literature and its contexts in theory. Now let me pause quickly over the word "introduction." I started teaching this course in the late 1970s and 1980s, when literary theory was a thing absolutely of the moment. I had a colleague who was only half joking when he said he wished he had the black leather concession at the door. Theory was both hot and cool, and it was something about which, following from that, one had not just opinions but very, very strong opinions. In consequence, a lot of people thought that you couldn't teach an "introduction" to theory. They meant that you couldn't teach a survey, saying, "If it's Tuesday, it must be Foucault. If it's Thursday, it must be Lacan." It was a betrayal to approach theory that way. What was called for, it was thought, was a radical effort to grasp the basis for all possible theory. You were a feminist or a Marxist or a student of Paul de Man, and if you were going to teach anything like a survey you had to derive the rest of it from your fundamental conviction.

That's the way it felt to teach theory in those days. It was awkward teaching an introduction. While I was teaching this course, which was then called Lit Y and required for our literature major then as now, Paul de Man was teaching Lit Z, the art of interpretation as he practiced it. That course did indeed cast its shadow across every other form of theory, and it was extremely rigorous and interesting, but it wasn't a survey. It took for granted that everything else would derive from a fundamental idea, but it didn't for a minute suppose that a whole series of ideas, each considered fundamental in turn, could jostle for attention and get mixed and matched in a cheerfully eclectic way—which perhaps we will be seeming to do from time to time in our introductory course.

Do I miss the coolness and heat of that moment? Yes and no. As Wordsworth says, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," and I hope to convince you that it's still advantageous for us too to be "into theory." We still have views; we need to have them and above all to recognize that we have them. We still have to recognize, as literary journalism by and large does not, that whatever we think derives from theoretical principles. We have to understand that what we do and say, what we write in our papers and articles, is grounded in theoretical premises that, if we don't come to terms with them, we will naively reproduce without being fully aware of how we're using them and how, indeed, they are using us. So it is as crucial as ever to understand theory.

Yet there's an advantage too in realizing that the cachet of theory has waned and the heat of the moment has passed. (I am not speaking here of methodology, which is as much as ever a matter of urgent dispute today.) We have the vantage point of what we can now call history. Some of what we'll be studying, indeed much of it, is no longer considered essential groundwork for today's methodologies. Everything we'll study has had its moment of flourishing and has remained indirectly influential as a paradigm that shapes other paradigms, but much of it is no longer lingered over as a matter for ongoing discussion—which gives us the opportunity for historical perspective. Hence from time to time I'll be able to be reasonably confident in explaining why certain theoretical issues and ideas pushed themselves into prominence at certain historical moments. With this added dimension an introduction becomes valuable not only for those of us who simply wish to cover the high points. It's valuable also in showing how theory is, on the one hand, now a historical topic, yet is, on the other hand, something that we're very much engaged in and still committed to. All that then by way of rationale for teaching an introduction to the theory of literature.

How does literary theory relate to the history of criticism? The history of criticism is a course that I like to teach, too; usually I teach Plato to T. S. Eliot or Plato to I. A. Richards or some other important figure in the early twentieth century. It's a course that shares one important feature with literary theory: literary criticism is, like theory, perpetually concerned with the definition of literature. Many of the issues that I raised in talking about defining literature are as relevant for literary criticism as they are for literary theory. Yet we all instinctively know that these are two very different enterprises. For one thing, literary theory loses something that literary criticism just takes for granted. Literary theory is not concerned with evaluation. Literary theory just takes evaluation, or appreciation, for granted as part of the responsive experience of any reader and prefers, rather, to dwell on questions of description, analysis, and speculation, as I've said. Or to be a little more precise: how and why certain readers under certain conditions value literature or fail or refuse to do so is indeed an object of literary theory, or at least of theory-inflected methodology, but why we should or should not value literature or individual works belongs only in the domain of criticism. I should say in qualification, though, that theory sometimes implies value even though it never lays claim to it. Sir Philip Sidney's "poetry nothing affirmeth and therefore never lieth," with which Paul de Man would agree completely, speaks both to theory and criticism.

So that's what's lost in theory; but what's gained in theory that's missing in criticism? Here I return to the topic that will occupy most of my attention for the remainder of the lecture. What's new in theory is the element of skepticism that literary criticism—which is usually affirming a canon of some sort—does not share for the most part. Literary theory is skeptical about the foundations of its subject matter and also, in many cases, about the foundations of its own arguments. How on earth did this come about? Why should doubt about the veridical or truth-affirming possibilities of interpretation be so widespread, especially in the twentieth century and beyond?

Here by way of answer is a dollop of intellectual history. I think the seeds of the sort of skepticism I mean are planted during what often is called "modernity." Modernity should not be confused with modernism, an early twentieth-century phenomenon. Modernity refers to the history of modern thought as we trace it back to the "early modern" time of Descartes, Shakespeare, and Cervantes. Notice something about all of those figures: Descartes in his First Meditation wonders how he can know for sure that he isn't mad or whether his mind has been taken over by an evil genius. Shakespeare is preoccupied with figures like Hamlet who may or may not be crazy. Cervantes makes his hero a figure who is crazy—or at least we're pretty sure of that, but Quixote certainly isn't. He takes it for granted that he is a rational and systematic thinker. We all take ourselves to be rational, too, but Cervantes makes us wonder just how we know ourselves not to be paranoid delusives like Don Quixote.

All these doubts about the basis of thought in reason arise in the seventeenth century. Why then do we get this nervousness about the relationship between what I know and how I know it arising at this moment? Well, I think it's characterized at least in part by what Descartes goes on to say in his Meditations. Descartes answers the question he has posed about how he can know himself to exist, which depends in part on deciding that an existing alien being doesn't exist as it were in his place—he answers this question to his own satisfaction by saying, "I think. Therefore, I am"; and furthermore, as a concomitant, I think, therefore all the things that I'm thinking about can be understood to exist as well.


Excerpted from Theory of Literature by PAUL H. FRY Copyright © 2012 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Paul H. Fry is William Lampson Professor of English, Yale University. Among his previous books is Wordsworth and the Poetry of What We Are, published by Yale University Press. He lives in New Haven, CT.

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