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Literary History

The Religious Imperative, Enlightenment And Romanticism, From Masterpiece To Text, Guilt And Contrition, Contemporary Dilemma

History traces the passage of men and women through time. Literary history charts their developments and experiments in writing in the hope that global discourse will be stimulated and cultures come to understand one another. It relates, compares, and categorizes the poetry, prose, drama, and reportage of authors at various periods. The process started when the artistic deployment of language (poetry, polemic, drama, and stories) began to inspire a significant following. There arose a "culture of response" or a body of people—priests, scholars, educators, and fellow writers—who extolled select works and ensured their preservation in archives and public buildings. In this manner a "canon" or corpus of writing was put together that was deemed significant in relation to the culture because it reflected nationalistic bias, religious, political, or aesthetic partiality. The "models" or frameworks of admission altered as knowledge progressed, printing became widespread, and attitudes and styles of writing changed. Around the world separate cultures evolved their own criteria, forms, and traditions, ranging from doctrinal works such as Buddhist sutras and Vedic hymns to Japanese dance-drama (the Noh plays) and Chinese operatic drama or chuanqui. Within such works were found ideas that had a lasting effect.

In the Western model, for instance, Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 B.C.E.) believed poetry was merely imitative, but Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) praised its imaginative truth, while Homer thought his inspiration "God given"—standpoints that were echoed and debated down the centuries. After the Greeks and Romans, many critical ideologies emerged in Europe, invoking morality, passion, and truth to life and authorial intention, but it was not until the twentieth century that the sound of theories clashing drowned the traditional debate between critic and author (a debate that did not much affect the public who continued to read books for pleasure). Ironically the shift of spotlight from creator to commentator climaxed in a critical task force that sought to detonate its own foundations or "de-construct" the very language of its discourse. Ostensibly radical, this was no more than a revival of an ancient revolt. For language from the start had always sought to analyze or "argue" the authority of its being, just as man had always sought to challenge the authority of God. From the beginning, literary history tended to be presented as a sequential progression—a dialogue or "confrontation" between successive ages and schools of writing, one "great book" or "genius" spurring another, starting with texts concerned with man's status in the universe, specifically his mortal limitations as opposed to the immortal gods.

Early interest focused on myth, out of which emerged the hero who stood taller than the rest, loyal, brave, and fabulously resilient. The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of a swaggering young prince who defies the gods, bonds with another warrior-hero, and meets the fate that such a rebellion inevitably courts. It ends with a massively moving death lament. Gilgamesh has to die in order that he retain his humanity. If he did not, he would be a god and forfeit that essential realism, or truth to the mutable world, that is the hallmark of great literature.

The Greeks showed a similar preoccupation with gods and heroes. If their analysis went deeper, they too held by laws in which the overreacher—the man who commits an irreversible act against nature—is abandoned to the Furies (primitive avenging spirits), who demand he be sacrificed in order to maintain the status quo. This is notable in Greek tragedies, especially Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, whose harsh, unrelenting climax is often viewed as pitiless. With respect to such forms, Aristotle introduced an ethical dimension when he analyzed the rhetorical devices and idioms of the fourth century B.C.E. in his Poetics, a foundation-stone for students of literature (as well as Hollywood scriptwriters), for it launched the notion of plot or mythos as a device conveying unity of theme and action. Crucially, the concepts mimesis and catharsis were defined, the first positing language as imitation and the second dealing with the emotional purgation—a mix of horror and pity—arising in the spectator of a powerful tragedy. Aristotle's compatriot, Plato, denied the highest truth to literary art, seeing literature as too attractively persuasive. As for the Greek myths, with their stunning organic imagery and metamorphoses, they inspired every age of literature, perpetually updated and adapted as novels, operas, and plays.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Linear expansivity to Macrocosm and microcosm