I'm sympathetic to Moretti's project as a whole - to use large amounts of data about literature in order to understand the big-picture issues in literI'm sympathetic to Moretti's project as a whole - to use large amounts of data about literature in order to understand the big-picture issues in literary history - but I think he overstates the novelty of his approach. The tone is polemical, but his methods have been employed by historians and philologists for over 100 years. Moretti's only innovation is couching his findings in the language of evolutionary biology and representing them with visual elegance.
His examples, moreover, are unusually well-suited for illustrating his methods. Just look at his discussion of "genre traits," which thinks about genre evolution as a combination of random mutation and survival of the fittest. This works well for detective fiction and other varieties of popular 19th-century novels, where genres are more clearly defined, and traits easily noticeable. However, this theory could not be applied with any success to my field (poetry in medieval China) because of the porous nature of the genres and the unreliable archival record.
The unreliability of archives and databases is probably the biggest challenge to Moretti's model, since his approach has to make certain assumptions about our records, e.g.:
-that works which survive into the present are representative -that errors have not been introduced during transmission -that further errors have not been introduced during digitization -that the patterns he sees literary history are meaningful and explainable (not just the product of chance)
In my experience, none of these assumptions can be held with any certainty, at least not for the study of 7-10th century China.
Moretti is a very skilled reader and forceful writer. He makes a good case for the value of statistics and other scientistic methods for the study of literature. He is also aware of the limitations of his project, and that his methods can answer certain kinds of questions but not others, or at the very least direct the critic's attention to an interesting line of inquiry.
A worthwhile (and brief) book for anyone interested in current trends in literary criticism. However, don't believe the rhetoric that something completely new is happening here....more
Really rich book - I was forced to skim it due to time constraints, but I'm definitely planning on going back and reading it in detail at a later dateReally rich book - I was forced to skim it due to time constraints, but I'm definitely planning on going back and reading it in detail at a later date. Essentially an ahistoric, descriptive study of allegory as a "mode" (rather than simply a genre). The range of references is amazing, covering everything from the Western classics to Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Walter Benjamin, and modern advertising. Essentially, allegory is highly determinative, and functions to quash details that don't conform to its higher, abstract narrative. The allegorical figure is like a Freudian obsessive or a paranoid man, for whom everything fits a little too neatly into place.
In lieu of a more detailed, critical review, let me just list the book's contents (chapters and subheadings), to give a sense of its scope:
1. The Daemonic Agent -intro -The conceptual hero: his generation of subcharacters -Daemonic constriction in thematic actions -Daemons: good and evil agency -Daemonic possession -Daemonic heroes -Daemonic mechanism and allegorical "machines" -Cosmic systems governing personal fate -From agent to image: static agency -Conclusion
2. The Cosmic Image -intro -Objections to traditional theory -Metaphor: the criterion of surprise -The part-whole relationship -Teleologically controlled tropes -The isolated image -The talisman -The insignia -Astral symbolism -Diagrammatic isolation -Surrealist isolation -Kosmos: the allegorical image -The emotive nature of ornament -The didactic function -Rhetorical incitement to desire and action -Generalization of the term -Cosmogonic ornamentation -Sources of authority -Antiauthoritarian shifts in status -Expanding images of the universe
3. Symbolic Action: Progress and Battle -intro -The two fundamental patterns -Progress, real and ideal -Battle: the psychomachia and ideological warfare -Contrasts between progress and battle -Microscopic effects of syntax -Rhythmic encoding -The unfinished allegorical progression -The "visual" nature of allegorical actions
4. Allegorical Causation: Magic and Ritual Forms -intro -Doubling: a magical causation -Magic, accident, and miracle -Imitative magic -Types of doubling -Contagious magic: a consequence of ritual form -Contagion in contagious magic -Contagion as a generalized magical influence -Contagion: the cure, symbolic isolation -Microcosmic reduction of the symbolic center
5. Thematic Effects: Ambivalence, the Sublime, and the Picturesque -intro -Theological dualism -Emotive ambivalence -Philosophic ambivalence -Irony: the extreme degree of ambivalence -"Difficult ornament" and the transition to modern allegory -Allegory and the sublime -Allegory and the picturesque -Grotesquerie: ambivalent picturesque -Spenser's epic: the sublime poem -Spenserian ambivalence -Forms of infinite magnitude and detail
6. Psychoanalytic Analogues: Obsession and Compulsion -intro -Applications of psychoanalysis -Psychological analogues -The analogue to allegory -Agency: obsessional anxiety -Image: the idée fixe -Action: compulsive rituals -Causality: magical practices -Theme: ambivalence in "antithetical primal words" -The use of analogy
7. Value and Intention: The Limits of Allegory -intro -Allegory as a violation of the criterion of disinterestedness -"Poetic justice": the teleological control of intention -Self-criticism of intention -Loosening the boundaries of the mode -Predominance of commentary over literal surface -Genre and the engulfing of action -The intentional shift from allegory to myth -Allegorical simplicity of intention: its purposive drive -Intentional control in political allegory -Puttenham: the Elizabethan subversive -Accomodation and syncretism -Science fiction: open space for the daemonic intermediary -The cult of power: a role for daemons -Magic and the enlargement of thought -Defensive ritual: the "lower" function -Visionary ritual: the "higher" function
Afterword Afterword to the 2012 Edition -intro -The Six-Fold -Dynamics and Form -The Allegorical Dimension -Bending the Rails of Authority -The Numbers -Critical Styles, Current Codes -The Crisis of Scale -Allegory Without Ideas -Allegory and the Numbers -Libido Dominandi...more
A really great overview of literary theory from Plato to the 1970s. The unifying thesis is that theory sets itself in opposition to common sense and tA really great overview of literary theory from Plato to the 1970s. The unifying thesis is that theory sets itself in opposition to common sense and thus is driven to logical paradoxes. Compagnon's stated goal is to expose the assumptions of both theory and common sense, and usually attempts to find a synthesis that will satisfy both (or neither) parties. The shadow of Roland Barthes hangs heavy over this book.
In truth, the real joy here is his exploration of the seven topics he sets out for himself, which can be simply listed as literature, author, world, reader, style, history, and value. In each case, Compagnon provides a historical narrative, describes the central questions, and demonstrates how one might re-think the relevant topic.
Highly recommended to anyone who wants to seriously engage with literary theory but hopes to avoid the mind-numbing prose of the great post-structuralists....more