Nmherman on Sat, 27 Apr 2002 19:59:02 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] Juvenilia Ante Academia 3/4


>From "Oedipus and Hamlet:  Defining Language by Embodying its Antithesis in 
Two Heroes of Western Literature," copyright 1994 Literary Change.

    Like the eastern symbol of the yin-yang, language functions according to 
the principle of dynamic inter-relation between similarity and difference, 
identity and distinctness.  This principle defines the conventions that exist 
in all literature, such as the author/reader, chorus/hero, and author/work 
relationships.  Moreover, language itself--the basic principle that lends 
words meaning--is the principle of contrast within a context.   "Hot" cannot 
be the opposite of "circular," but only of "cold."
                *   *
    Because of an implicit dichotomy between "art" and "life" that 
characterizes the West from its earliest origins, the properties of language 
are explored through the creation of a literature that serves as language's 
opposite.  Both are verbal, but are invested with differences grounded in the 
way they are created and their cultural functions.
                *   *
    The convention of heroism is one of the most ancient and widespread 
literary methods by which human experience is transformed into literature.  
In a very literal sense, Hamlet and Oedipus both "become" literature.  This 
is of course in the obvious sense that they are characters of the plays in 
which they appear; it is also the case in how they function within the 
context of the plays themselves.  At Hamlet's death, he pleads with Horatio 

    "Absent thee from felicity awhile,
    And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
    To tell my story..." (5.2.349-51).
Hamlet becomes, as a literary hero, a source of instruction to those who read 
his story as Shakespeare (not Horatio) told it.  In Western literature, it is 
possible to trace a pattern in the hero-making conventions that tend to 
pursue a literary paradigm based on the long-term survival and canonization 
of highly stable literary works.
                *   *
    There is a striking pattern in the heroic attributes used to make 
literature out of Hamlet and Oedipus.  An essential and recurrent aspect of 
the hero's persona is that he embodies the breakdown or obstruction of 
communicative relationships.  The hero in Western literature exists in a 
state of profound disruption of the relationships of human life, including 
the sexual, familial, political, religious, and what might be called 
"cognitive"--the consonance of perception with reality.  The hero's defining 
trait is isolation; to be heroic, Hamlet and Oedipus must reach the state of 
complete (if involuntary) individualism, and to that end relations between 
them and their communities must collapse on all levels.
                *   *
    Now that we have seen some of the ways that relationships are disrupted 
in the heroic genre, certain questions arise as to whether such disruption is 
necessary, and if so, what the limitations are on literature of which the 
portrayal of disabled communication is the foundation.

    The purpose of heroic individualism is to establish the sufficiency of 
one person's story--a story with fixed characters and point of view--to 
describe and illuminate the human experience.  If Hamlet's dilemma were 
resolved through some human relationship, then it would follow that we should 
pay attention to that relationship, not to Hamlet's heroism in making do 
without it.  If fixed and canonical artifacts, rather than general and 
non-mimetic discussions of language relationships, are to constitute a 
literary culture, then the limitations of fixed works must be de-emphasized.  
This is done by inordinately stressing the individualistic experience of 
language, or how language works for people who are, at least temporarily, out 
of relationships.

    The paradox is that language itself is a relationship, and if 
relationship breaks down, then so must language.  Creating the heroic, 
communicatively isolated individual means creating a work in which language 
is confuted, disrupted, disabled--in a very real sense, does not exist as a 
functioning reality.  These works usually end with the removal or expiation 
of the obstacle to communication, and present a statement about communication 
as a human ideal, but never with the resumption of communication itself.  (In 
the cases of both Hamlet and Oedipus, the protagonists die or are banished at 
the end of the plays; they do not go on to live lives rich in healthy social 
life.)  Heroic literature (and to the degree that it is based on a heroic 
pattern, Western literature) thus explores the relationships that constitute 
language by creating pictures of those relationships when malfunctioning or 

    This brings up serious questions as to the ability of heroic literature 
to fulfill the potential language possesses to improve and facilitate human 
communication and well-being.  At some point the heroic mode, with its 
disproportionate emphasis on the individual as the defining participant in 
literature, begins to undermine our ability to grasp the fundamental nature 
of language and its basis in relationship or mutuality.  Perhaps in its 
beginnings, when literature had less of a grip on the human intellect and a 
less established cultural status, it was less of an imbalance to make the 
individual's role in language pre-eminent.  Now, however, with the powerful 
influence literature has on how we conceptualize language, the heroic 
paradigm (and the literary canon from which it is inextricable) has seriously 
diminished society's ability to recognize, absorb, and master the 
co-operative elements of communication.

    Heroism makes people aware of the urgent necessity of personal 
self-assertion and frames life as a process of fighting the enemies of the 
self.  However, a more evolved and decentralized concept of literature is 
necessary to bring self-expression to its fullest realization in the form of 
social and cultural relationships based on the dignity of the individual.  
Accordingly, heroic literature ought to be re-assessed as a means or phase in 
the development of human communication, and not as an end adequate in itself.

If you'd like to hear more discussion of the ideas in Literary Change, please 
sign below and send a copy of this newsletter to:                   Ray 
            Talk of the Nation Letters                                  
National Public Radio
            635 Massachusetts Ave. NW
            Washington, DC 20001.
"I would like to hear more discussion of the general ideas outlined in the 
enclosed copy of Literary Change."
        Signed, X____________________________


"Among the laws that rule human societies there is one which seems to be more 
precise and clear than all others.  If men are to to remain civilized or 
become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same 
ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased."

            --Alexis de Tocqueville,  
                Democracy in America

"Every novel implies a metaphysics."

            --Jean-Paul Sartre

"Discussing race is taboo in this country."

            --Lani Guinier

Reading List:
Here are some writings that the editors think are relevant to the 
anti-canonical hypothesis:
    *1.  Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
    *2.  Hunger, by Knud Hamsun
    3.  Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
    4.  Woodcutters, by Thomas Bernhard
    5.  The Stranger, by Albert Camus
    6.  "Erasmus" and "Zola," by E.A. Robinson
    7.  "Ozymandias," by Percy Shelley
    8.  Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
    9.  Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics,                   
Psychology, and Religious Belief, 
        by Ludwig Wittgenstein
    *10.  Principles of Art and An Autobiography, 
        by R.G. Collingwood

All materials printed in this newsletter are copyright 1994 Literary Change.  
However, the editors have no objection to contents being photocopied or 
distributed electronically for non-profit purposes.  Please re-use and 

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