Literature as National Institution: Studies in the Politics of Modern Greek Criticism

Literature as National Institution: Studies in the Politics of Modern Greek Criticism

by Vassilis Lambropoulos


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Literature as National Institution: Studies in the Politics of Modern Greek Criticism by Vassilis Lambropoulos

This book examines how the practices of criticism establish a particular domain of knowledge, the truth of literature. As a discussion of the ideology and politics of literary knowledge, it concentrates on constitutive elements of its production: the intertextuality of writing, the mediatedness of understanding, the formative role of reading expectations, the enabling presence of relevant literacy, the conditioning horizon of expectations, and the economic character of axiology. The main argument advanced is that criticism, by constructing literature as an ethnic heritage and communal treasure, participated in the invention of a national identity necessary for the legitimization of the modern state.

Case studies have been selected from the highly relevant area of contemporary Greek criticism. Microscopic investigations of its dominant sites, mechanisms, and discourses reveal that the field emerged in response to concrete political needs and provided the state with a literary tradition as proof of its national composition, purity, continuity, and autonomy. The construction and canonization of texts as art works invariably employed, as a measure of aesthetic (and ultimately moral) merit, the Greekness of the literary sign. The book, as a genealogical approach to the neglected national role of literature, should be of interest to specialists in literary theory, comparative literature, Greek studies, and cultural studies.

Originally published in 1988.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691602943
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
Pages: 270
Product dimensions: 9.20(w) x 6.10(h) x 0.60(d)

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Literature as National Institution

Studies in the Politics of Modern Greek Criticism

By Vassilis Lambropoulos


Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06731-5


Toward a Genealogy of "Literature": The Institutionalization of Tradition in C. Th. Dimaras's A History of Modern Greek Literature

Let us talk about literature; let us talk about what we mean by "literature," about the uses of the word; let us talk about the effective uses of "literature," the recognizable references, the established meanings of the term. We should look at it as a sign, part of a meaningful code; that is, we should look at literature as a sign of a code which makes possible knowledge and communication about literary texts. At issue is the knowledge of and communication about literature, the discourse of its truth, and the discursive constitution of the knowledge about literature. We are thus already within the realm of criticism, the institutional site of such inquiry and knowledge. Criticism gives us an authoritative account of the nature and history of literature. Let us then talk about criticism, literature, and history, and let us provisionally call them all "Greek."

In a recent comprehensive survey, "Histories of Modern Greek Literature" (Kehayoglou 1980), despite the sufficient informative coverage given to every manual and textbook in print, the lack of any theoretical considerations gave an alarming sign of the humanistic pretensions operating at the heart of what still in Modern Greek Studies is characteristically called "philology." The reviewer took the necessary pains to describe and compare the existing histories in terms of content and structure but failed to examine their epistemological assumptions. Histories (of any kind and field), however, are not clear panoramic overviews, describing the evolutionary development of a field or discipline; rather, they are interpretations and revisions of its tradition, and therefore expressions of an aesthetic, philosophical, and political choice. Histories of literature are themselves immersed in literary tradition, thus offering only one of its possible versions from a culturally conditioned viewpoint. Unless their historical specificity and discursive identity are examined and unless fundamental questions pertaining to epistemology and ideology are dealt with, elaborate bibliographical guides will only help scholars, teachers, or students to locate a book.

For example, in terms of critical acclaim, public success, and scholarly influence, A History of Modern Greek Literature by C. Th. Dimaras remains the best achievement in this area. Methodologically speaking, there are many possible viewpoints for a critique of this massive work. For instance, a comparative reading of other similar histories that followed would show that most of them, including the one by Linos Politis, were essentially composed as responses or reactions to Dimaras's grandiose conception; or another study, an intertextual reading of the essays and polemics published by members of the so-called "Generation of the 1930s," would reveal how the reevaluation of Greek literary and cultural tradition they effected was finally consolidated in an official form by this history. Yet, I believe that a different approach must take priority: an effort to scrutinize it generically as a scholarly work and trace the critical discourse supplying its principles.

I want to discuss how histories of national literature are written and how aesthetic and other ethnocentric dogmas determine their methodological criteria; I also want to offer an alternative research project, a history of literariness, rather than literature. To this effect, first I describe, through a close study of the first paragraph of Dimaras's Preface, the assumptions lying behind the comprehensive act of reading which constitutes this work of definitive interpretation. In the second part of the chapter, I outline a radical alternative to the subject through the politics of discourse, using Michel Foucault's The Archaeology of Knowledge (later ingeniously renamed following Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals) as a model for historical investigation.

Thus, the preface begins:

The title of this work is A History of Modern Greek Literature. If we analyze each term in the title, we shall have a precise idea of the content of the book. The term logotechnia (literature) contains the notion of the techne (art) of logos. Here, however, literature is considered in its broader sense and it means the totality of written monuments, excluding those concerned with special disciplines. Even so, such a definition lacks required breadth: we do not forget that what distinguishes our letters is the great contribution of oral speech, especially through the folksong. It also happens that some works of a scientific character, particularly among those concerning the so-called theoretical sciences, are written in such an artful form that they should be included among literary works regardless of their scientific nature. Further, we should not forget that certain branches of knowledge express an orientation of the mind corresponding, during the period in which it prevails, to the monuments of the verbal art: philosophical, historical, geographical interests, as well as those which pertain to the natural sciences, accordingly leave their imprint on literary production too. Hence, such works also have their place here, not for their scientific dimension but as an aid to a more precise understanding of the spirit dominating literature during a given time. Later, when these works are regularly integrated into the overall intellectual life in their more specialized character, they cease to interest the historian of letters. What is important is the moment of orientation, not the later regular evolution of the individual branches of science. Hence, the history of letters and the history of learning are terms nearly overlapping with the history of literature as presented here.

The author begins by suggesting that "each term in the title" provides "a precise idea of the content of the book." This introductory statement is unfortunate in that it lacks proper historical understanding. Dimaras is dealing with terms and ideas, not with concepts and notions; in this way he endorses the fallacy that, just as poets are endowed with talent and periods permeated by the Zeitgeist, terms are likewise invested with ideas in a static, unambiguous way. His initial claim unavoidably leads to the absurd conclusion that works bearing identical or similar titles — for example those by I. Rizos Neroulos (1827), A. Kambanis (1925), or B. Knös (1969) — are dealing with exactly the same subject, regardless of the historical moment and the cultural place of their composition. Do terms like "history," "Greek," and "literature" refer to eternal ideas with a stable meaning? Or do they represent current, culturally specific notions of under standing?

The first attempt to map the territory uses a tautology: logotechnia is the techne of logos; literature includes what is literary. That much is taken for granted: literature is first of all what we all know it is, what the word itself means. The next sentence enlarges this definition to make it include all written nonscientific works. The implicit distinction between the "referential" and the "emotive function" of language drawn through Seferis and Eliot from Ogden and Richards could be, for some, at least a practical one in its crude matter-of-factness: literature is everything written that is not nonliterary. We are still within the realm of the tautological, but it seems that now the term covers not only the artistic but also the monumental: it embraces a totality of monuments, not just a collection of documents.

Up to this point, the second stage of the elaboration, the whole discussion seems well contained within the contours of critical orthodoxy — accepting at face value every text in which the Greek community of critics and artists between the two world wars discovered literary quality or potential. Therefore, the discussion seems unable to achieve its ultimate goal as we know it from its final realization: the revision of tradition and its sovereign canon. The initial revisionary move is very subtle: notice that the first definition identified literature with the literary, while the next with the nonliterary. Its realm is already much broader. Every history of literature is in practice the history of an alternative literature. The primary purpose of Dimaras's History was to effect a permanent appropriation of the institution of Greek criticism by the discourse of the native conservative modernist movement as expressed mainly in the essays of its eminent representatives, like Seferis, Elytis, Karandonis, Sahinis, and Nikolareizis. Thus, a reformation of aesthetic values would result in both the suppression of standards and works promoted by the aestheticist and the radical movements of the early twentieth century and the establishment of the new ones. But for this effort to achieve its goals, the rules of the game and the mechanisms of prohibition and rejection operating on the borders of the reigning discourse had to change, while the norms of aesthetic understanding had to be revised. For an institution to be successfully appropriated by a discourse, for a discursive practice to be effectively transformed, for new objects to emerge as artworks and others to disappear from the canon, a drastic act of rereading must be exercised, not only on the main body and the highest hierarchical positions but also in the margins of the dominant discourse.

The second revision occurs in the next stage of the argument — the fifth and sixth sentences of the text — where the door is opened to folksongs and orally-transmitted material in general. Here boundaries are transgressed to include the vast field of folklore. Songs and other elements of folk culture can be subjected to aesthetic evaluation, and new genres can enter the mainstream. Speech invades the written word, the anonymous is admitted into the artistic, and acts of transmissions become parts of tradition. Significantly, there is no mention of any criteria. The reader may wonder about the principles according to which admittance will be judged, but such criteria are absent both from the paragraph at hand and the book. Simply by attributing a vague cultural relevance by particular works, events, or phenomenons, the author feels free to include, demarginalize, or push to the periphery whatever either serves or threatens his strategic purposes.

After breaking the lines demarcating the artistic from the non-artistic text and the written from the spoken word, Dimaras proceeds aggressively — in the next sentence — to break more boundaries, those between art and science: even "works of a scientific character" can be considered literary under certain conditions. Of these conditions, only one is mentioned, an "artful form." The absence of any explanation and the awkward term trigger some embarrassing questions. First, how does one determine whether a form is "artful": by employing biographical, stylistic, political, or some other criteria? Second, is artfulness a matter of originality, conventionality, or propriety? Is it an outcome of authorial will or of critical evaluation or both? Third, is every artful form artistic? And, if so, can this be beneficially applied to other arts? Fourth, is artistic quality only a matter of form? And what is "form"? Fifth, are art and science separate, interdependent, or overlapping fields? Sixth, according to the author's liberal assumptions, do we really have works of a "gay," even beautiful "science," fulfilling Nietzsche's ideal?

No one already familiar with the Preface or other parts of the History should expect any answers to these questions. The main reason for this silence is not the book's manifest lack of theoretical self-awareness, although it is surprising for a work first published in 1948 (and a preface that has survived throughout its seven editions) after the heyday of major modern movements of criticism, such as Russian Formalism, American New Criticism, the Prague School of Structuralism, or the Geneva School of Phenomenology; the reason is primarily the authoritarian aim informing the whole enterprise which aspired to a total review of the canon of modern Greek literature — or rather a scholarly confirmation of the tradition already tentatively revised by the Generation of the 1930s against the predominant aesthetic trends of their time. The book's pretensions to an epistemological innocence reflected in its pseudohistorical method serve to conceal its ideological identity.

Returning to Dimaras's text, we note that, according to the last argument, "despite their scientific nature," even "some works of scientific character" can be considered as literary works, provided their form is satisfactory. But we are not told how this can be decided and who is the master of the relevant expertise, although we know that, later in the book, works of such quality will be credited for their artistic merits. Still, it is obvious that the author has already ventured far in his exploration of the term literature. By now, his History includes additional works from national folklore as well as others from the theoretical sciences. If the humanistic assumptions of this approach are not yet sufficiently clear, in the fourth successive adjustment of the initial definition they will be slated explicitly, and to that effect he devotes not just one, as in the previous stages, but five long sentences. In its final stage, this gradual dismemberment of the then prevailing notion of literature — notice the steadily expanding length of the four preceding sentences — will culminate in the apparent artistic legalization of all works, documents, and oeuvres. Naturally, the author cannot bestow aesthetic value upon all of them; but by pointing to their cultural significance, he can at least deem their consideration absolutely necessary for a survey of this kind. Thus any branch of systematic knowledge, any discipline, any science related to or representative of the "spirit dominating literature during a given time" can be shown to leave its "imprint on literary production."

A modern theoretician might try to make a superficial case out of the seemingly intertextual leanings of the above suggestion. But one does not have to open the book at random in order to point to particular discussions that cancel this argument. A contextual analysis of this paragraph proves that its main points, instead of aiming at definitional clarifications, work towards the usurpation of certain terms so that enough ground will be cleared when the actual examination of literary phenomenons begins. As we shall see, at the end of the paragraph he abolishes the then current constitution of the idea of literature; thus, the individual revisionary acts of interpretation can follow unobtrusively.

The use of the term evolution testifies eloquently to the biological model of explanation employed throughout the book. Indeed, he maps the development of modern Greek literature according to stages of evolution and turning points of change. He describes schools of thought and artistic movements as succeeding one another in a natural sequence with only minor disturbances affecting their course. A solid hierarchy of major artists and minor figures is established, individual achievements are evaluated, and the idea of progress is consistently defended. Moreover, internal struggles and territorial fights are muted, the authority of dominant discourses is concealed behind ephemeral patterns of intellectual life, continuity is discovered everywhere, and all is made to fit into a homogeneous scheme of organic growth. The ending of the paragraph triumphantly concludes this argumentation with a description of literature that embraces all the humanistic "theoretical sciences." In this book, the author implies, the history of literature, the history of belles lettres, and the history of learning almost overlap; they support, illuminate, and define each other. This attitude leaves literature at his mercy: by adding larger concentric circles around the initial one — that of the conventionally planned territory — he manages to destabilize it and bend the limits of its discourse as designated by previous critics.


Excerpted from Literature as National Institution by Vassilis Lambropoulos. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Acknowledgments, pg. ix
  • Introduction, pg. 1
  • 1. Toward a Genealogy of “Literature”: The Institutionalization of Tradition in C. Th. Dimaras’s A History of Modern Greek Literature, pg. 23
  • 2. Who has been Reading Masterpieces on Our Behalf? George Seferis, Makriyannis, and the Literary Canon, pg. 44
  • 3. The Fictions of Criticism: The “Prolegomena” of Iakovos Polylas as Künstlerroman, pg. 66
  • 4. Incompleteness as Damnation: The Poetics of the Romantic Fragment in Dionysios Solomos’s The Free Besieged, pg. 85
  • 5. The Hermeneutics of Openness in the Novel: The Unsettling Modernism of Yannis Beratis’s Whirlwind, pg. 100
  • 6. Writing Greek as the Only Language: The Impossible Postmodernism of Renos Apostolidis’s “The John of my Life”, pg. 127
  • 7. What Makes Good Literature Good and Literature: The Politics of Evaluation Surrounding the Work of Yannis Ritsos, pg. 157
  • 8. The Violent Power of Knowledge: The Struggle of Critical Discourses for Domination over Constantine P. Cavafy’s “Young Men of Sidon, A.D. 400”, pg. 182
  • 9. Encountering the Poststructuralist Challenge, or Beyond Humanism: The Paradigms of Contemporary Greek Criticism and the Languages of Theory, pg. 209
  • Postscript: Peri Hermeneias, pg. 236
  • Bibliography, pg. 251
  • Index, pg. 257

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