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Literary History

From Masterpiece To Text

With the advent of the twentieth century came a shift from elitism to inclusivism. Despite the elite radicalism of factions such as the modernist who sought to break with the past and incorporate in their projects the staggering breakthroughs in science, anthropology, medicine, and psychology, the citadel of high culture was opening its gates. In the same way that the people of various countries were demanding a government in which their opinions could play a central role, literature became more democratic, spawning free libraries, open scholarships, and popular editions. Eventually there spread an awareness that all facets of culture, oral or written, constitute a "text," and the traditional fixation on a corpus of "masterpieces" was a blinkered way of evaluating culture.

A noted leveler was the psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), who showed how people tend to think and act the same—that all are dominated by hidden urges. Each man and woman has a subconscious in which sexual desires bubble and fume and are liable to spill over in erratic or outrageous behavior—ideas that opened the floodgates of creativity and literary experiment, unleashing the "stream of consciousness" technique, in which a rush of unpunctuated, sometimes loosely associated words are made to stand for dreaming or thought-play, notable exponents of the latter being James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner.

As experiment brewed in artistic circles, elsewhere the dream of freedom was degenerating into tyranny and nightmare. In the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin wrested power in 1924, followed by Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1933. Both the Communist and Nazi regimes banned free speech. In Russia, novelists were condemned as "insufficiently ideological" or as putting self before state, and in Germany the works of select writers were ritually burned as "Jewish" or "decadent." Literature was promoted as an extension of a cause, much as it had been during the Middle Ages. Whereas Nazism had effectively died out after World War II, the Communist dream persisted through the writings of Karl Marx (1818–1883), whose ideas pioneered an influential school of literary criticism.

Marx's thesis was that the worker, alienated from his product by contractual enslavement, had no status and was there solely to serve his master. And, of course, to him the master was equally remote, unsolid, and this notion of invisibility or "nonpresence" takes us to the core of modern literary theory: the author as anonymous ghost haunting the boundaries of his or her text.

For just as science at the turn of the century was breaking matter into tinier and tinier particles, literary criticism was separating the finer elements of language, analyzing units of sound and syntax. The theories of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) identified sequences of self-contained signs whose parts could be isolated into vocal utterances (parole) and the abstract structure that organized them (langue). Saussure was a major influence on the Russian formalist movement, which had its inception in 1914 at Saint Petersburg, headed by the critic Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984), who fused symbolist ideas with his own manifesto, demanding autonomy for the text, discarding any social role for literature, and cultivating metaphor, mystery, and radical perception.

This propensity to focus on language, its emotional and figurative charge, was also a precept of the New Criticism that developed in England and the United States after World War I. Treating a poem or novel as a self-contained artifact, this approach took the text apart in a precise, clinical manner, paying attention to aesthetic balance, the interplay and opposition of imagery, excluding social and biographical factors that existed beyond the page. The overall unity of the work—how parts were orchestrated to harmonize or counterpoint one another—was considered as indicative of its quality in the "Western tradition," which held by formal standards of excellence.

With emphasis on the autonomy of texts, words drifted from their anchorage in the physical. Signifiers were seen as signaling to each other rather than the reader. This reached its apotheosis in the writings of Jacques Derrida (b. 1930), who subverted the notion of a single meaning. The author was not a spider presiding over a web of words. No, he was a fly trapped in it—unaware that his work held messages at odds with the stance he thought he had taken. What critics of the past had done was "privilege" various angles and themes, taking in current thought and social mores, but their readings were more acts of faith than rational appraisals. Derrida drastically hinted that the totalitarianization of meaning—the obsession with a single clear authorial intention—found a counterpart in the inflexible rationalism of the Nazi death camps.

Such theories began to infuse the novel, which started to question its own fictive illusion, just as had the German playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) when he sought to separate the political message from the drama by exaggerating the elements of artifice and so creating a sense of "alienation." So-called metafictions were produced that ridiculed the procedures of novel writing and, in one instance (B. S. Johnson's 1964 novel Albert Angelo), had the angry author breaking through the page shouting, "O fuck all this lying!" At last, Narcissus had smashed the mirror.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Linear expansivity to Macrocosm and microcosmLiterary History - The Religious Imperative, Enlightenment And Romanticism, From Masterpiece To Text, Guilt And Contrition, Contemporary Dilemma