Apr 21: Literary Theory, Cats, etc.

Who's up for a little literary criticism today? No one? What if I show you a picture of today's author, Hippolyte Taine, with a cat?

Have I got your attention now? No? How about if I tell you the criticism is racial:

Here we reach what is deepest in man; for, to explain this conception, we must consider the race he belongs to, say the German, the Northman...
Go on, tell us about this North-man:
that tardiness and frigidity of sensation which keeps him from rashly and easily falling under the empire of sensual enjoyments, that bluntness of taste, that irregularity and those outbursts of conception which arrest in him the birth of refined and harmonious forms and methods; that disdain of appearances, that yearning for truth, that attachment to abstract, bare ideas which develop conscience in him at the expense of everything else. Here the search comes to an end.

I'll say. Northwomen don't count, of course, because this is 1863, and women, for Taine, had yet to discover they had brains. The other thing that's great about this is the claim that German Protestants had no harmonious forms and methods.

That's the ending, but actually I thought it began well, although it's the school of criticism that believes literature is a means, not an end:
The discovery has been made that a literary work is not a mere play of the imagination, the isolated caprice of an excited brain, but a transcript of contemporary manners and customs and the sign of a particular state of intellect. The conclusion derived from this is that, through literary monuments, we can retrace the way in which men felt and thought many centuries ago. This method has been tried and found successful.

No evidence for that last statement, of course, which is my own prejudice about the French. I successfully avoided literary theory when in college -- the lit. crowd struck me as English majors in black leather jacket, a look I couldn't pull off at all -- but doesn't this sound a little structuralist? The author doesn't write the work, it is written on him (her), etc. Yet Taine can't help writing, in my favorite passage in the reading:
A modern poet, a man like De Musset, Victor Hugo, Lamartine, or Heine, graduated from a college and traveled, wearing a dress-coat and gloves, favored by ladies, bowing fifty times and uttering a dozen witticisms in an evening, reading daily newspapers, generally occupying an apartment on the second story, not over-cheerful on account of his nerves, and especially because, in this dense democracy in which we stifle each other, the discredit of official rank exaggerates his pretensions by raising his importance, and, owing to the delicacy of his personal sensations, leading him to regard himself as a Deity.
I don't understand that last phrase at all (maybe the modern equivalent would be tenure?), but really, if you add a reference to McSweeney's you can see that things haven't changed all that much.

Anyway, the rest is left for you lit. theory enthusiasts. I only note that it's an "Introduction to English Literature" where English Literature is not mentioned in the first eight pages, except for a passing reference to Sir Walter Scott. So be warned! And remember -- he liked cats.

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