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Sunday, July 05, 2009

Summary of "What is Literature?" by Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton was a student of Raymond Williams, the famous theorist who published the book 'Keywords'. Eagleton does not straight arrive on his argument and state evidence to prove his statement. In stead he examines all the ideas proposed about Literature, all the definitions provided for the same, then gradually unpacks them and finally points out his problems with them. Towards the end he arrives at his own idea and tries to define what Literature is. Mr. Pinto suggested that students take this route of reasoning while writing their research papers so that they do not end up summarizing their own argument in the first paragraph itself and would be exhausted. Descartes also emphasized on the importance of doubt in order to attain knowledge.

Some of the immediate ideas that Eagleton throws in are following:
He first examines if Literature is imaginative fiction or just fact. Literature can't be just one of these because it spans from newspapers to philosophical treatises to novels and poems. While newspapers maybe purportedly reporting facts and daily happenings, one may wonder why so many newspapers exist to do the same work. Though the question and its answer cannot be so simple, one can see that readership of different newspapers is dictated by the interesting/informative/humorous nature of reporting which distinguishes each paper. Also, this definition of literature seems to exclude texts that transcend pure writing like manga or comic books.

Then he comes to the formalist argument about literature. Mr Pinto first briefly explained why the fascination with formalism. It is so because formalism tried to break away from the existing norm and resorted to examining the medium itself: language. The Formalist definition: Literature is organized violence committed on ordinary speech. This definition focuses on how for a text to be valued as literature, the importance is to write in a certain way and use a particular register. This can be marked as the linguistic turn in literature. Register in linguistic simply means a variety of language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting. Looking at register as a "formality scale" and placing it in context of literature's formalist definition, we can say that when one shifted to using "very formal/printed word" language or "formal/archaic" words that were not used in ordinary conversation, the writing written so could be qualified as literature. Otherwise, as the signifier does not refer to the commonly known signified, for example, "thou unravished bride of quietness" (it is not necessary that the person is talking about the bride or it is not even necessary that the bride should exist). Formalists defy reference to such quasi mystical symbolism and draw attention to material reality. Formalists say that literature (poetry was particularly talked about) is not a vehicle for content/ideas because what is written could have been written by anybody else located in that time under those conditions. Preethi then asked, if this is not contradictory to the formalist argument of rejecting social background and its influence on the author's life and work. Mr Pinto agreed that it was indeed one of the shortcomings of the theory but even so, formalists paid more attention to the forms of writing like satire, allegory etc and explained that it is the nature of the form that makes the content what it becomes in the end.

Talking about estrangement, Eagleton says that if content is removed out of context and its own social reality, like Shakespeare read in today's time, it is estranged. One cannot comprehend it in context of social reality and it results in delayed gratification causing increase in interest. Thus, what is estranged might be sometimes qualified as literature. But this does not hold ground because even when misread/interpreted out of context, work does not cease to make sense completely because of the way people relate in their own ways to it irrespective of their social or chronological frames. So, we can say that literature has no "essence" or inherent common quality/ies across all the texts that are included in literature but rather something to do with the way the reader relates to it makes it literature. Mr. Pinto stated that Literature received its non-pragmatic license and special aura only after Romanticism.

But Literature cannot only be what people think it is because then everything will be literature. So, then literature is something that a particular group relates to for some reason and values it. What could be the possible reasons? Practicality/usefulness is not the reason because otherwise, Mill and Bentham would also be included in literature. The reasons change from time to time based on the values and concerns of that period. For example, Matthew Arnold emphasized on serious literature and Eliot did not regard Wordsworth as worthy of reading and brought in John Donne who until then was never considered. So, we can safely conclude with the help of the last paragraph of his essay that the preferences of people who are in a capacity to decide what constitutes literature are shaped by larger structures and value systems, those of class and other categories. We can also replace the larger preferences which can be classified into categories as ideology(?)

Eagleton concludes saying "

33 comments:

ajmira said...

thank u sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much for this material....

Anil Pinto said...

My pleasure. Thanks for taking time to comment. Appreciate your gesture.

varshini said...

thanks a lot......

Anil Pinto said...

Appreciate your gesture varshini. Noopur takes the credit, though.

Anonymous said...

hi pinto this Gabriel from Agentina, and your post Helps me a lot with a mid term examination at the english teacher training college that I am now giving. this man Eagleton, to my mind, is misunderstandable

Anonymous said...

thank you so much! :) Hope this will help me in my final exam later. :] More power to you. :)

Anil Pinto said...

@ Gabriel, Glad to know. Thanks for taking time to share your use of it. Appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant work, 3rd Year BA English Literature in Delhi University, and you really helped! :)

zahira said...

estrangement would be the formal aspect foregrounded which means a word used in an unfamiliar context The usual meaning of the word fire would be estranged in a statement like my heart is on fire which is literary.It doesnt refer to removed in time as u interpreted. READ FORMALISM?

Anonymous said...

thank youu, this helped me with my final exam for final year, eng lit=)

Anil Pinto said...

Dear Anonymous, I'm glad it was useful. Thanks for taking time to mention it.

aravind said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
aravind said...

@zahira..
The "estrangement" here refers to the Marxist understanding of it, where the product is taken away from the producer, while what u pointed out was the formalistic definition of "defamiliarisation".

plz read d eagleton essay, knw d context, u wudn find "estrangement" there but, "alienated", well it amounts to the same..

Anonymous said...

thank u!!!very useful:)

Anil Pinto said...

our pleasure

Anonymous said...

this is gud can u also write an article on summary what is history of literature by e h carr .

Anonymous said...

its really easy to understand your text as compared to eagleton.

Anil Pinto said...

Thank you for the feedback

Medina said...

Thanks a lot! That'll help me for my exam on that topic :)

Anonymous said...

...thank you so much! Anil Pinto for this one!
i know this could help me in my studies..thanks a lot!

aishwarya said...

thanku soo much sir:)

Ashmita said...

the summary is not available in full view, somehow..
it ends with
"eagleton concludes saying...."

Anonymous said...

Helped a lot...for my Law an literature exam!
Thanks

Nat said...

What? WHAT does he conclude saying?

Anonymous said...

thanks a lot..it really helped me a lot..

Deepa Vanaraj said...

Pinto sir. I dint refer it when i was studying literature. Now, Im doing my MSc. psychology and Im using this for my general seminar. very very helpful. Thank you sir. :)

Anonymous said...

I hate to break it to you, but this summary falls far short of summarizing Eagleton's article. It gets to about page 10 of 46. You basically covered about 1/4 of the work. For those of you relying on this summary do so at your own peril. What is provided here is good, but again most of the article and it's main arguments are not covered in this summary. Better to grind through the real thing, tough as it is to absorb.

Anil Pinto said...

Dear Anonymous, I agree with you observation. Will be happy if someone can fill that gap. Left to myself it will take quite a long time.

Anonymous said...

is it incompelete? u end u saying eagleton says " ... missing quote.

Anil Pinto said...

it is incomplete

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for the summary, helped me grasp more of what he was saying.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anil, can you please give summaries of other essays of the book ? It will be a great help indeed. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank youuuuuu