noc18-hs31-Lecture 07-Neoclassical Literary Theory


Hello everyone and welcome back to another
lecture on Literary Theory . As you know we had ended our previous lecture on Longinus
Theory of Sublime by noting how similarities may be drawn between ah the notion of sublime
and the romantic movement, but before we move on to discuss the romantic movement of the
late 18th and early 19th century , we will have to dwell upon the story of the preceding
100 years . This is because it was during these 100 years. So, I am talking roughly about ah the period
from late ah 17th century to late 18th century. These were the years that saw the emergence
of an attempt to theorize literature within the field of English literary studies. Now, ah this statement might sound controversial,
so let me elaborate . It was during the period between late 17th and 18th century that English
literature gradually became a subject of critical interest and scholarly discussion . Now, it
is important to note here that English literary studies as an Institutionalized Academic Discipline
would not be established till 19th century . The late 17th and 18th century emergence
of English literary studies was not connected with academic institutions, but rather with
what is known as the growth of the public sphere in Britain. So, here I am making a distinction between
the emergence of English literary studies and the emergence of English literary studies
as an academic discipline. As an academic discipline, it will emerge
only during the 19th century, but as a field of debate and discussion, it gradually emerged
during this period from late 17th to 18th century. So, it is within this public sphere that English
literature first started being discussed in a comprehensive and coherent manner . The
development of literary theory viz English literary studies was at the heart of this
18th century enterprise to engage with literature in general and English literature in particular
in a systematic manner . In today’s lecture, we will discuss how the
emergence of a public sphere in Britain gave rise to English literary studies as a new
field of discourse . We will also discuss how this in turn was connected with the development
of the first set of critical theories that was inherently connected to English literary
studies, a set of theories that are today identified by the name Neoclassical Literary
Theory , but I want to open this discussion by looking at the term literature itself , ah
and here I would like to reiterate some of the things that I have already mentioned in
my first lecture in this series. Literature which ah has its roots in ah the
Latin word Littera was associated in English till the 16th century with the notion of literacy
ah which is simply the ability to read. Ever since Caxton established the first printing
press in Britain in the 15th century and ah printed books started becoming more and more
available. The ability to read printed material became
one of the prominent signs of literacy . So, the literacy that was signified by the term
literature, now after the establishment of the printing press in Britain started to mean
the ability to read printed material. The ability to read printed books and literature
even today retains this strong link to the ability to read printed books, indeed this
is precisely why oral forms of literature are regarded as a kind of special or even
marginal category within the field of literature .
Furthermore in an age where ah drives to achieve mass literacy was unheard of, the ability
to read was a sign of accomplishment that could only be achieved by a leisured class. A leisure class would undergo a fairly prolonged
training in order to achieve literacy. This kind of time ah was not available to
everyone in the society . The ability to read ah which signified having literature in oneself
also had a limited class basis, a limited class base because reading material including
printed books was only available to a very few. They were enormously expensive ah compared
to ah the prices that they have today and at that point of time, they were available
only to a very few group of people within the society. So, literature ability to read printed books
was something was a practice that was fairly limited ah to a very small social class . Thus,
by the 18th century, literature was firmly connected to the idea of social distinction
to ah it was a mark of belonging to that small social group, a privileged social group ah
literature at least in the sense in which it was associated with literacy and printed
books was an activity that was far removed from the presence world of back breaking manual
labour ah acquaintance with literature was. Therefore, a sign of belonging to the upper
echelon of a class bounce society , but the question is ah who constituted this upper
echelon of society in Britain of 17th and 18th century. The answer to this question was actually fast
changing because in 1640s, England had experienced a bloody civil war which had culminated in
the beheading of King Charles, the first and the establishment of a Republican state . This
led a severe blow to the existing power structure of the society in which the long entrenched
aristocrats headed by an absolutist monarch held complete sway over the affairs of the
state. The bourgeoisie as a distinct class was making
their presence felt on the political arena through trying to establish the primacy of
the parliament over the arbitrary dictates of the monarchs and the establishment of a
republic in 1649 significantly tilted the skills towards their favor . These gains of
the civil war were retained by the bourgeois and even further enhanced through the glorious
revolution in 1688, another major event in 17th century British history and 1688, though
it saw the return ah of the monarchical form of government, this ah return to monarchy
was significantly different from the kind of monarchy that Britain had known till before
the civil war . William Mary who had made the new monarchs of Britain following the
glorious revolution were also administered a coronation oath in which they had to swear
that they would govern according to the statutes and laws that have already been discussed
and agreed upon in the parliament . Therefore, the new centre of power no longer
remained the court of an autocrat when a voice of one man reigned supreme over all other
voices . Now, the sight of true power became the parliament whether members conversed as
equals and not as subordinates ah. This spirit of holding a discussion amongst
equals which informed and indeed still informs the idea of our parliament ah was replicated
in the 18th century more locally by such informal gathering places like clubs, coffee houses
and chocolate houses and these were the places which formed what is known as a bourgeois
public sphere in Britain and it is in this broader story of the rise of the bourgeois
politics and bourgeois public sphere that we can locate the emergence of English literary
studies and its quest to develop a coherent theoretical discourse about literature here. However, I need to clarify something in British
literary history, every major socio political change has resulted in the creation or adaptation
of some new kind of literature or the other . For instance, the norman conquest of England
in 1066 resulted in a great ah social as well as political shake up of the country and as
a direct result of it, we see the emergence of the metrical romances which occupies such
a crucial place in medieval literary history of Britain. Similarly, the rise of the bourgeoisie in
Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries also brought with it a new form of literature
and this new form was that novel , but my focus in this lecture is not the rise of this
new bourgeois form of literature, but rather the rise of a new bourgeois form of looking
at literature in general of studying it, of studying literature and of talking about literature. What is unique and unprecedented here is,
therefore not the development of a new literary genre like the novel, but rather the development
of a shared parameter for critically judging literature as an art form within the general
field of english literary studies. In the rest of the lecture, I will talk about
two very important things. First, I am going to talk about the idea of
public sphere, what it means and what was the kind of public sphere that we see developing
in Britain during the 17th and 18th century and the 2nd thing that I am going to talk
about is a kind of literary theory that this British public sphere give rise to and why
this particular kind of literary theory is today known by the name of Neoclassical Literary
Theory . So, to begin with the idea of the public sphere,
now this is a term that is most strongly associated with the work of German intellectual Jurgen
Habermas ah who in his book titled The Structural and I am referring to the translated English
title of the book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere which was originally
published in 1962. The German version, the Habermas in that book
describes public sphere as constituted by social institutions which provide a platform
for debates and discussions through which public opinion is shaped. So, according to urban mass public, sphere
is constituted by different kinds of social institutions which provide platforms for debates
and discussions through which public opinion can be formed, public opinion can be shaped
and if we look around us, we can see numerous instances of such platforms of open public
debates and discussions ranging from ah village squares to television studios . Now, I think
you will realize that these social institutions become especially ah relevant within a democratic
political structure because it is precisely in such a political system that public opinion
gets shaped through open debates and these open debates, then shape the function of the
government, the shape of the government. So, within the political system of a democratic
country, these platforms of open public debate which constitute the public sphere becomes
very relevant and very important and in the western world, the public sphere became more
and more important as feudalism gave way to more democratic structures of governance and
for Britain more specifically those social institutions constituting a public sphere
of debate discussion and opinion making became significant from the late 17th century onwards
following the beheading of the absolutist King Charles, The 1st and subsequently through
the ah assertion of the parliaments supremacy. Now, in this public sphere which in Britain
came to prominence during ah the late 17th-18th century had two very strong influences . The
first was the influence of enlightenment and the second influence was that of capitalism. Now, enlightenment which ah swept through
Western Europe during the 17th and ah 18th century prioritized reason, prioritized rationality
and it foregrounded the ability of human reasoning to make sense of the world around us. God or the faith in divine authority was no
longer called upon to explain human existence or the universal order which framed that existence
and this privilege of the rational, this privilege of reason, the faculty of reasoning formed
a key aspect of the late 17th and 18th century public sphere as well. If we consider the court of a monarch, we
will see that it is the voice of one person which has absolute sway over all other voices
and the reason why this single voice has an absolute sway over all other voices is because
the voice of the monarch is considered to be divinely guided, and this is at the heart
of feudalism . The monarch does not need to convince others through reasoning . His words
are taken for granted simply because he is the monarch and is situated at the top of
a hierarchical social and political pyramid, where unquestioning obedience is the norm. If you compare this to the public sphere informed
by the values of ah enlightenment, you will see that public opinion is shaped by people
who appeals to the reasoning faculty of their fellow participants. So, unlike the court, the members of ah the
public sphere are perceived by each other as equals and the argument or opinion of one
member can only trump the argument and opinion of another member if they are perceived as
more rational, if they appeal to the reasoning faculty more , this privilege of rationality
like all the other forms of discourse emerging from within ah this public sphere also influenced
the discourse of Neoclassical Literary Theory . Thus, we find John Dryden who was one of
the most influential British poets and literary theorists of the 2nd half of the 17th century
argue in his work titled Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy . That literary criticism should
be and I quote founded upon good sense and sound reason rather than on authority. Now, let us come to the influence of capitalism
on the emerging public sphere of the late 17th and 18th century . As noted earlier,
the institutions that ah made up the public sphere during this period replaced the monarchs
port as a site of social, political and economic formation and whereas, the courts were ah
the domain of the aristocrats, the institutions of the public sphere were primarily the domain
of the bourgeoisie whom the growth of capitalism had pushed forward . Thus, the public sphere
that emerged in Britain during the period under discussion was essentially a bourgeois
public sphere and it was informed through and through, this public sphere by the economic
and political interests of the modulo class, but the discourses that took shape within
this bourgeois public sphere were not merely limited to the economic and the political,
rather it also included the cultural and the public sphere was also used by the bourgeois
to shape a cultural worldview which was in sync with their economic and their political
views . It was as part of this broader bourgeois cultural project that we see the development
in Britain of the field of English literary studies and the associated field of literary
theory. So, from this general discussion of ah context
within which Neoclassical Literary Theory emerged , let us now move to some specific
aspects of this literary theory . As I have explained while discussing the etymology and
the development of the term ah literature within English language, engagement with literary
texts was associated during the late 17th and 18th century with culture taste with cultural
refinement . Possessing or reading literature signified a degree of cultural sophistication
which was supposed to distinguish the new bourgeois from the peasants and industrial
labourers attempts to critically engage with literature was indeed perceived by the bourgeoisie
as a mark of an elevated social status. That was earlier exclusively enjoyed by the
aristocrats and during this period, we therefore see the emergence of a literary theory that
is deeply concerned with the issue of developing cultural refinement and with the issue of
developing social sophistication . A clear instance of this is to be ah found in ah the
18th century journals like The Tattler for instance or The Spectator where ah people
like Richard Steele ah and Joseph Addison , but using these journals highly effectively
to instruct the bourgeois readership on what literature to read in order to develop a cultural
taste that would distinguish them as gentlemen. Now, it is important to note here that in
ah the matter of judging what is good and proper literature and developing a refined
cultural taste through it, the literary theorists of the bourgeois public sphere relied heavily
upon the classical literary and theoretical texts and this was primarily because the value
of the classical texts were already well established . This means that the key classical texts
that we have discussed in our previous lectures ah like for instance Aristotles poetics or
Cirrean Longinus on the sublime formed a sort of template on which the new kind of English
Literary Theory was scripted during the late 17th and 18th century. It is for this reason that the literature
criticism that emerged during this period from the bourgeois public sphere is referred
to as Neoclassical Literary Criticism because it revisited ah in such a significant way. The classical ah Literary Canons , now one
of the chief ways in which literary theories of the bourgeois public sphere were using
ah the classical texts was by treating them as the repositories of stylistic decorum and
literary rules and conventions. The works of Aristotle for instance or Longinus
or Horus while being used to formulate a set of literary do’s and dont’s which could then
be applied ah either to produce new literary works which were good and proper or to judge
existing literary works and then to see how well they were ah fitted ah to develop one’s
cultural taste and one’s social refinement you need for the 18th century British poet
and theorist Alexander pope. These rules which he could find in the classical
texts went even beyond the issue of stylistic decorum because according to pope, the literary
conventions devised by the classical author were a reflection of the rules that underlined
nature itself. So, for a literary critic or an author acquaintance
with these classical rules were not simply a matter of cultural taste, but also a matter
of truthful reflection of nature and of mans place within nature. So, as Pope writes in his famous Essay on
Man and a quote “Those rules of old discovered, not devised and nature still, but nature methodized”
and then, ah a few lines ah later we find Pope advising both the author and the critic
and I quote again. “Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem;
to copy nature is to copy them”. It is how important to note that these rules
and conventions which are the new classical theorists culled from the texts of the classical
predecessors did not evoke an unquestioning admiration. Take for instance, The Rule of the Three Dramatic
Unities. Now, this is a particular rule which enjoyed
a great degree of popularity among the 17th and 18th century theorists ah which stated
that any play in order to attain the elevated status of a Classical Greek drama ah needs
to abide by three important things, three unities. The first is that it needs to have unity of
place ah which means that it needs to confine its actions to a single location , second
is it needs to have unity of time and resist any attempt to randomly jump forward or backward
in time and thirdly and perhaps most importantly, it needs to have unity of action where ah
the plot remains uncontaminated by any subplot that might divert the audience from the main
story, main focus. Now, though many new classical theorists believed
in the sanctity of these rules which they could see ah being abided by sort of Classical
Greek tragedians ah , there are also others who questioned these rules by pitching ah
the pleas of against these rules because if you read Shakespeares tragedies, you will
see that ah almost all of them ah regularly violate ah each of these three unities. Thus, though on the one hand we have someone
like Pope who insists that we learn ah just esteem for the ancient rules and on the other
hand, we have texts like Dryden’s essay on criticism for instance, where the matter of
following rules and conventions of the classical authors is pleased within the structure of
a rational debate. So, it is not something that ah is presented
as you know ah a set of rules that is written in stone, it becomes a matter of debate and
discussion at least in Dryden. In many ways, ah Dryden’s text is perhaps
more representative of the spirit of open debate that informed the bourgeois public
sphere than Pope’s admonitions ah to follow the rules laid down by the ancient , but inspite
of acknowledging this diversity, there is no denying the fact that an excessive concern
with rules, with conventions and with stylistic decorum occupied Neoclassical Literary Theory
of ah the late 17th and 18th century and this concern would remain strong till it will be
displaced by the emergence of a radically new conceptualization of literature within
the field of English literary studies during the late 18th and early 19th century. It is to this new conceptualization of literature
that we will turn in our next lecture, where we will start with our discussion of Romanticism. Thank you.

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