Introduction to the Critical and
Scholarly Discussion of Literature, Part 1
Lecture Basismodul 1, November 13, 2007

  1. Received notions on the question of “What is Literature?”: There are as many notions as people reading literature
  2. Second thoughts: Avoiding circular definitions
  3. More complex or differentiated perspectives: A short history of the discussion of literature
  4. Consequences 2: Understand how the debate of literature was constructed to reflect your personal participation

Origins of our literary discourse — look back on last lecture

The most famous work of poetics, c. 350 BC Aristotle, The Art of Poetry, translated into English after the French translation by André Dacier (1705) [ECCO] [Anglistik-server Oldenburg]
Concerned with (some of the) poetical (literary?) genres, yet not a history of literature
An early 18th century opera, 1712 John Hughes, Calypso and Telemachus. An opera. Perform’d at the Queen’s Theatre in the Hay-Market. Written by Mr. Hughes. The musick compos’d by Mr. Galliard (London, 1712) [ECCO] opera presented as poetry
The first history of romances, 1670 Pierre Daniel Huet, History of Romances, 1670, translated by Stephen Lewis (1715) [ECCO] [our edition]
...almost a history of literature (concerned with fictions), yet lacking focus on one nation
An early 18th-century “literary” journal, 1712 ''Memoirs of literature. Containing a weekly account of the state of learning, both at home and abroad. Volume I. For the years MDCCX and MDCCXI.'' (London, 1712-1714). [ECCO]
...discusses literature, without mentioning not a single literary text

A confusion we all know how to handle:

The more complex answer:
“literature” is what people discuss as “literature”

A short history of the discussion of literature: Chapter 1
Literature (learning) becomes the object of a challenging debate: 1500-1750

A short history of the discussion of literature: Chapter 2
The “belles lettres” become the field to be dicussed in front of the wider audience: 1600-1800

A short history of the discussion of literature: Chapter 3
The “poetry” of the nation becomes the special field of a popular national debate within the field of the “belles lettres”: 1730-1830

A short history of the discussion of literature: Chapter 4
The discussion of “romances”/“novels”/“prose fiction” creates a new field of cultural criticism: 1670-1800

profit handicap
The discussion of literature
appropriating the debate of

• adresses the learned world
• lacks a solid task
learned publications • observes the book market
• establishes a critical secondary discourse on an ongoing production
• offers a safe position (I am only reviewing)
• subjects the sciences to a general and popular debate
• lacks a field of general attraction
belles lettres • introduces a scandalous subject matter of wide appeal
• allows personal perceptions
• does not lead to national critical debates
poesy • allows to attack the field still dominated by the opara
• introduces an object of special knowledge
• creates a field of quasi natural national individualism
• suffers the restriction to a debate of poetics and perfection
fiction • allows (thanks to Huet) the interpretation of poetry, plays and novels as cultural indicators
• allows a canon of works of the past

Around 1700: total production 2000 titles

A short history of the discussion of literature: Chapter 5
The national literatures become the object of the new secular educational sytems: 1800 to the present

Das Nationaltheater — München, 1950

Built on a field the secularisation provided



Königsbau der Residenz     

From Stefan Benz, “Entsorgte Erinnerung. Münchner Frauenklöster - gefeiert, verfemt, vergessen”, Aviso 3 (2005), p.42-47

Munich’s Residenz, 2nd floor: celebrating Germany’s new poetry

Munich’s Residenz, 2nd floor: celebrating Germany’s new classicism

Munich’s Residenz, 2nd floor: celebrating Germany’s discovery of the ancient Greece

Munich’s Residenz, 1st floor: Nibelungensäle — celebrating Germany’s Middle Ages

Munich’s Residenz, 1st floor: Nibelungensäle — celebrating Germany’s Middle Ages

Munich’s Residenz, 1st floor: Nibelungensäle — celebrating Germany’s Middle Ages

The first German history of literature: The focus on the nation creates a political dimension

Ich habe es unternommen, die Geschichte der deutschen Dichtung von der Zeit ihres Entstehens bis zu dem Puncte zu erzählen, wo sie nach mannichfaltigen Schicksalen sich dem allgemeinsten und reinsten Charakter der Poesie und aller Kunst überhaupt, am meisten und bestimmtesten näherte. Ich mußte ihre Anfänge in Zeiten aufsuchen, aus welchen kaum vernehmbare Spuren ihres Daseins übrig geblieben sind; ich mußte sie durch andere Perioden verfolgen, wo sie bald unter dem Drucke des Mönchthums ein unwürdiges Joch duldete, bald unter der Zügellosigkeit des Ritterthums die gefährlichste Richtung einschlug, bald von dem heimischen Gewerbestand in Fesseln gelegt und oft von eindringenden Fremdlingen unterdrückt ward, bis sie von allgemeiner Aufklärung unterstützt sich in Mäßigung frei rang, ihr eigener Herr ward und schnell die zuletzt getragene Unterwerfung mit rächenden Eroberungen vergalt. Welche Schicksale sie litt, welche Hemmungen ihr entgegentraten, wie sie die Einen ertrug, die Anderen überwand, wie sie innerlich erstarkte, was sie äußerlich förderte, was ihr endlich eigenthümlichen Werth, Anerkennung und Herrschaft erwarb, soll ein einziges Gemälde anschaulich zu machen versuchen.

Geschichte der poetischen National-Literatur der Deutschen von Dr. G. G. Gervinus. Erster Theil. Von den ersten Spuren der deutschen Dichtung bis gegen Ende des 13. Jahrhunderts (Leipzig: W. Engelmann, 1835), p.1.

Germany’s Walhalla — errected in the 1840s

“Literature” — under the patronage of the national state

A literary journal of the 1820s: the term still open to all fields of the old literary production

Continental Historians influenced the creation of English literature

HISTORY, within a hundred years in Germany, and within sixty years in France, has undergone a transformation owing to a study of literatures.

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. [...]

We have meditated over these ways of feeling and thinking and have accepted them as facts of prime significance. We have found that they were dependent on most important events, that they explain these, and that these explain them, and that henceforth it was necessary to give them their place in history, and one of the highest. This place has been assigned to them, and hence all is changed in history—the aim, the method, the instrumentalities, and the conceptions of laws and of causes.

Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, Introduction to The History of English Literature (1863).

The late development of English literature

Ian Hunter (1988): English literarture rose as a subject to be taught at schools

  1. “English emerged as the privileged vehicle for the techniques of moral training.”
  2. “English emerged as specialised pedagogy based on correction through self-expression.”
  3. “English took shape in, and remains inseparable from, a special teacher-student relationship.”
  4. “English appeared in the guise of a new formation of the literary text and a new kind of literary reading.”

If modern criticism has come to construe the literary reading as a ’raid on the infinite’, always incomplete, always marking a new beginning, this is not because (as it thinks) the literary text contains an inexhaustible supply of meaning due to its openness to an ever-changing domain of experience. Neither is it a sign that the text is a local manifestation of an ideal linguistic calculus capable of [129] infinite actualisations. Rather, it is a sign of the fact that the modern literary text, unlike the text of rhetoric or philology, is not an object of imitation or description, but a more recently elaborated device opening its reader to endless moral invigilation.

Ian Hunter, Culture and Government: The Emergence of Literary Education, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988, pp. 122-128.

Literary communication around 1700: An affair of the res publica literaria, pluralistic yet self centered

Literary communication today: An affair affecting the whole public, promoted by the nation yet pluralistic

Why do we learn this?
To better understand why the question “What is literature?” is open

Our course is advertised as an “Introduction to the Critical and Scholarly Discussion of Literature”