and writing Literary History : The Critic's Role*
1. Making History
Social group of even an individual lives one’s own story and even
lives to tell or listen to that story.
A story feels warm, immediate but only available in bits and
pieces and so half understood as it is being lived.
But a story feels distant, mediated but available in larger
chunks and so somewhat better understood as it is being told.
Indeed a story is expected to hag together and have a beginning,
a middle, and an end, when the telling is done.
If the story of a people fulfils this expectation, we call
History may be perceived either as a series of happenings or
as a series of doings.
Happenings are events with causes ad effects, and people are
subjected to these events. In
the course of history, one on-going steady state with a set of routines
tends to get replaced by another such steady state.
History thus consists in singular episodes that constitute
transitions between routines episodes.
The question to ask would be – what makes history?
What sort of event makes a difference to history?
are acts of work or play with motives and functions (work and play
to be understood here in the large sense), and people are agents in
a drama as it were. In the
course of history, the on-going episodes occasionally yield new routines
and relatively steady states along the way.
History thus consists in episodes punctuated by transitional
routine-states. The question to ask would be – who makes history? What act makes
a difference to history?
As history is perceived, so history is presented.
2. Writing history
WHETHER HISTORY IS TO
be presented as a series of happenings or events calling for an explanation
or as a series of doings or acts calling for an understanding (Verstāṅdnis),
this interpretative presentation needs to be based on a chronicling
of facts. There can be no
worthwhile history without a chronic at hand-a history without a chronic
ale for a base is only a piece of legend.
There can be no worthwhile chronicle without a history in view
– a chronicle without a history for a raison a deter is only a junkyard
of facts. (The weakness of the 19th century conception of history
lay precisely in its pre occupation with explanation is the exclusion
of understanding and again, in its tendency as claim the factuality
of a chronicle for its historical explanation also).
A chronicler selects putative facts for their importance or
relevance, (with out a sense of relevance the chronicler can indeed
be compared, as Roman Jakobson once did, to a policeman in Czarist
Russia “who intending to arrest a certain person, would, at any opportunity,
seize any or all persons who chanced into the apartment, as well as
these who passed along the street verifies these putative facts, and
then works out the relative and absolute chronology and topology of
these verified facts. (Asking
questions such as – what precedes what? By how much? And how far back
from now? What is separated from what/By how much? And how far away
does one pass from a chronicle to a history?
To begin with, local facts are gathered into global facts and
aggregates of facts – thus, a battle here and a battle there add up
to a theatre of war, the work together with its impact of a thinker
or writer or activist here and another there add up to the Indian
Awakening (Bharatiya Probodhan). In such aggregating, questions of the number
of aggregates and their boundaries may need to be settled – thus,
are Hindi and Urdu literatures one or two?
If two, where does Premchand belong?
Was pre Bismarch Germany or Pre Mazzini Italy or Pre British
India only “a geographical expression” or an entity whose history
could be written?
Again, short-term facts are gathered into long-term facts and
aggregates of facts – thus, inventions incorporated into production
now and then add up to the Industrial Revolution; losses and decays
now and then add up to the decline and fall of an empire.
In such aggregating, questions of the number of aggregates
and their boundaries may need to be settled – thus, do the Indian
Middle Ages end with the coming of the Mughals and Europeans or do
they end with the consolidation of the British empire in India?
Does Jnaneshvar the beginning of a new period or the close
of the beginning of a new period or the close of the earlier period?
Even ordinary persons may become conscious of this adding up (“times
are changing, zamāna badal gayā hai”). German Romanticists and Idealists coined the
term Zeifgoirs (spirit of the times) to a global view of various aspects
of life in a period. Others
insist on the fuzziness of period boundaries in view of residues and
precursors the defy them.
A global and long-term perspective is thus imposed on what
would otherwise remain loose local and temporary facts and a new scale
now determines what is important or central and what is unimportant
or ancillary. Indeed this makes a vital difference to the
distinction between settled routines and unsetting episodes that we
have proposed earlier. What
may be seen as an episode in a narrower perspective may come to be
seen as a mere piece of routine in a wider perspective – thus, the
Great War, by a grim piece of hindsight, dwindled to a mere World
War I. Conversely, what may
be seen as a routine in a narrower perspective may come to be seen
as a mere episode in a wider perspective – thus, bride burning among
Hindus in Northern and Western India may, one hopes, turn out to be
a temporary and local aberration.
But passing from a chronicle to a history is more than a change
from the local to the global and from the short-term to the long-term. A historian is expected to trace events to their causes and effects
and to place acts against their motives and functions. Ultimately this is a passage from facts to
It was not for nothing that Nietzsche said, “There are no facts,
only interpretations.” (The
Will to Power, iii.) The various
distinctions that we have proposed are interpretative in character
and therefore sensitive to the perspective adopted.
I have in mind pairs such as important/unimportant, relevant/irrelevant,
central/ancillary, on-going/transitional, routine/singular, happening/doing,
Indeed the very distinction between fact and interpretation is not
rightly factual but fluidly interpretative in character.
In retrospect, modern West is seen to have had three successive
perceptions of history-writing (i) In story-telling (Thomas Maculay’s
boast that his History of Engine “shall for a few days supersede the
last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies”); (ii) as ‘science’
undertaking to verify and explain facts scientifically; (iii) as interpretation
aiming simply as ‘understanding’ facts.
Again, over the centuries, human societies have often been
human history as cyclic as upwardly directed as a millennium, or downwardly
directed to a past golden age or Satya-Yuga.
3. Making literary history
PASSING FROM HISTORY IN
general to literary history in particular, one senses that the problems
of history are further complicated by certain special problems of
cultural history that literary history shares with art history, intellectual
history, religious history, technological history, and so forth.
Who makes a poem? And who makes a poem a poem?
These are two separate questions and their answers are by no
means the same. Similar observations
can of course be made with equal justice about works of literature
other than poems.
Who makes a poem? The
making of a poem is a very personal if not private act by the poet
and again the poem so made is a very unique artifact.
And yet the poet’s personal act is participative in a tradition
– even an act of rebellion calls for the existence of a tradition
to rebel against. Likewise the unique artifact is closely bound
up with other similar artifacts, the poem is participative in a body
But a poem is not a poem till someone responds to it and deems
it to be a poem – even if that someone simply happens to be the poet
himself. Till this happens, the poem remains only a
potential poem and as such it is not a part of literary history and
still less could make a difference to it.
This act of making a poem a poem on the part of the recipient
(listener or reader as the case may be) is the culmination of the
poem encountering. Poem-encountering and judging a poem to be a poem
are both very personal and also very specific, but at the same time
inevitably participative and comparative. From ‘This is a poem’ one is always led to
the continuation ‘Don’t you see?’ (which invites another to participate)
or to the continuation “Just like that one” (which offers a comparison
with another artifact). Responding
to a poem is a much an act as making a poem is.
Responding to a poem amounts to remaking a poem for oneself
and thus keeping it alive, indeed when the recipient is himself a
poet, his responding may trigger the making of another poem, No poem
is a wholly new poem.
Some of these poem-making acts and poem-responding acts make
history. Who makes poetic history? The poets and their recipients make poetic
history between them. A poem
is at once deeply embedded in the world of the artist and the artist’s
immediate and in a sense original recipients and deeply embedded in
the still and silent moment of fresh encounter even when the recipient
is widely separated in place or time from the poet.
The body of poems active in and thus available to the community
of poets and their recipients for remaking constitutes, therefore,
the repertory of the community at that point, of time.
(Repertories and sometimes institutionalized, as with the Greek
or Sangam anthologies; indeed some communities prefer to freeze a
repertory into a canon, as with the Chinese classics in the education
of a mandarin rather than let the repertory keep rearranging and replenishing
Making poetic history consists in making a difference to this
repertory by way of the following kinds of operations –
Addition to the repertory
Removal from the repertory
Maintenance of the repertory
Re-understanding of the repertory
What a critic does is simply to render these
operations self-conscious and therefore more vigorous.
Critics come in all shapes and sizes. They may be either amateurs or professionals.
Professional critics may be either detached academics or committed
participants involved in the demics or committed participants involved
in the literary life. Critics may be either conservatives accepting
the tradition as the mainstay of Literature or radicals treating the
tradition as a fact of life a best.
Critics may be either dominant or marginal – or (as in the
medieval period of Marathi, Hindi and other modern Indian Literatures)
non-existent. Their attitude to alternative critical positions
may be anarchistic (the more the merrier) or absolutist (there is
one right position) or relavist (the fewer the merrier).
A literary tradition worth the name is in
need of all the four kinds of operations mentioned earlier, If the
critical tradition is not vigorous enough to do the job, the literary
artists and their recipients will have to do it unaided by the critics.
If neither of these things happens, the tradition itself will
vegetate and then decay (as was probably the case with later Jain
Literature in Prakrit and early modern Indian languages).
Addition to the repertory means any of three
Restoration of what was once vigorous and later marginalized but is
deemed to be once again of current relevance, thus in the course of
the Indian Awakening, Marathi bhakthi poetry rather than Marathi
imitations of Sanskrit narratives and didactic short poems was placed
by the new intelligentsia at the most vital center of Medieval Marathi
Acceptance of what is most innovative or progressive in current production
as a valuable creative addition to the repertory (including acceptance
of what has been borrowed from another tradition) – thus, Mardhekar
and modernist poetry that was once reviled have now come to be accepted
into the canon by the Marathi literary establishment; the early modern
Marathi poetry of Keshavsut and others introduced the Romantic view
of love and nature.
Absorbing what is vigorous in the popular or folk tradition as an
antidote against decadence – thus, the Prakrit collection Gāh
āsattasai put the stamp of establishment on certain oral
traditions; Rebelais rebarbarized French literature.
Removal from the repertory means either of
two things :-
Rejection of the decadent elements arising out of excessive conformity
to what is considered literary sophistication
– thus, Cervantes parodied the effete Medieval romances out of reckoning.
Rejection of the regressive elements arising out of the attempt to
gain popularity by pandering only to the popular hunger for the sentimental
or the melodramatic or the violet or such – thus, exposure to the
mature. Continental Novel made the British reader conscious of the limits
much in the Victorian Novel.
of the repertory means either of two things :-
Establishment of the classics against attempts to reduce them to the
‘manageable’ level – thus, the rediscovery of Shakespeare in the times
of Garrick and Johnson put an end to the earlier efforts to ‘improve’
Shakespeare and tag a happy ending, for example, on to King Lear.
Celebration of the enduring concerns and passions of the community
– thus, the theme of virgin nature and fresh love in English poetry
or the theme of heroism and bhakti in Marathi poetry.
of the repertory means any of three things –
Discovery of unsuspected current relevance in the securely established
old – thus, while Justice Ranade and later G.B. Sardar re-understood
the Medieval Marathi bhakti poetry as an act of putting a backbone
in the oppressed ordinary people of their times, Mardhekar and other
modernist poets found a strange kindship with the lonely anguish in
this bhakti poetry, discovery of the ‘modernisty’ of Hamlet
is another instance of the same operation.
Discovery of unsuspected larger or even universal relevance in the
securely established old – thus, A.K. Ramanujan discovered certain
universal human concerns in some of the Classical Tamil poetry.
Creation of a repertory – thus, Ramachandra Shukla virtually created
the Hindi literary heritage by writing a combined history of Old Braj,
Old Avadhi, and Old Khari Boli literatures – thus, bringing Surdas,
Tulsidas, and Kabir together. Literary
traditions, like languages, may split also – witness the emergence
of American or Malyalam literature as distinct respectively from English
or Tamil literature.
4. Writing literary history
IT SHOULD HAVE BECOME
apparent by now that writing literary history is no mere discovery
of the past but a re-inventing or re-defining of the past by each
literary generation. The passage from the literary chronicle to
literary history assumes, therefore, a new significance. It is not simply a passage from settled fact
to shifting, unsettled interpretations, but rather is it a passage
to the realm of the essentially contested – the realm of literary
judgments. The very possibility of literary history may
come to be questioned. And
again the very possibility of a consistent direction to literary history
may come to be questioned. It
is clear that while making literary history may proceed without the
assistance of the literary critic, the writing of literary history
cannot so proceed (though in India the literary chronicle written
by the scholar is often mistaken for literary history, which is essentially
a job for the critic).
The question of a consistent evolutionary direction or progress
arises not merely in connection with the history of literature or
other arts but also with the history of philosophy and some of the
other enterprises of high culture.
The contrast between the non-progressivist (plus ca change,
plus cest la même chose) and the progressivist
in philosophy can be neatly brought out in the shape of a pair of
Says Kant (in the Critique of Pure Reason p.370)
that the philosopher’s job is to understand Plato better than he understood
himself. Kant also rejected
the possibility of progress in art.
Philosophy or art doesn’t get better; at best it gets better
understood. Any gains or losses
are at best local and short-term episodes.
Aristotle is said to have declared that Plato is dear but
even dearer is truth. Aristotle
also appears to hint in his Poetics that dramatic poetry, especially
tragedy, is an advance upon epic poetry, the older form of Greek poetry.
The remaining logical possibility, namely, the view of literary
history as a falling away from a past Golden Age in a consistently
downward direction has also been attested in the Roman and the post-Renaissance
European admiration of the literature of Classical Greece, and the
post-Rousseau glorification of folk and Medieval literature at the
cost of later literature.
Finally, one may combine the last two views and offer a
history made up of successive cycles – each cycle originating in a
fresh creative mode with its procession of pioneers, masters, acolytes,
and camp-followers. The Marxist
presentation of literary history often takes a cyclic form.
Now, whether one accepts or rejects that literary history
has a consistent direction and whether one views such a direction
to be essentially upward or downward or cyclic character, one at least
accepts that there is such a thing as literary history over and above
the simple scholarly chronicle of how literary works came to be made
and responded to. But certain critical positions maintain that
there is only literary chronicle, but no literary history to speak
of and for the critic to be concerned with.
Elsewhere (Kelkar 1983), I have argued that critical positions
differ from each other not indefinitely but along certain definable
parameters. One very important
pair of parameters is the critic’s attempt to understand the link
between the being of a poem and the meaning of a poem and also the
link between the linguistic vehicle of
a poem and the experimental content of a poem.
the being-meaning link
Parameter of the vehicle-content
1. Hedonism (anandvada)
The work is
The medium is transitive
2. Didactivism (ashayavada)
The work is
3. Formalism (rupavada)
The work is
4. Vitalism (jivanavada)
The work is
The work is
both autonomous and
Given these five positions, I have further argued that they
offer distinct answers to the question – the making of and responding
to a poem obviously has a history, but has the poem (and poetry) as
such got a history?
The hedonist says: A poem has no history, so poetry has no history. Society merely provides the takes for a poem
and thus makes poetry possible. History
at large is no mere than a backdrop.
There is no literary history as such, only literary chronicling.
The didacticst says: A poem has no history, so poetry has no history
of its own. Society constitutes
the conditions of poetry. History
at large is also the history of poetic content, any his poetry being
only a part of general history.
The formalist says: A poem has a history of its own, and of the company
it has kept with other poems. Society
provides the material of vehicle and content.
The history of poetry is the history of successive technical
solutions to stylistic problems.
The vitalists says: A poem has a history of its own, and of the company
it has kept with its recipients.
Society provides the ultimate condition of poetry.
The history of poetry is part of the inner history of man’s
successive soundings of life.
The bipolarist says: A poem is a poem, and not another thing. The making and responding occur within the
cultural envelope of society. The
history of poetry is a history of successive stylistic attempts to
communicate the form imparted to life.
It is a distinct chapter in the inner history of man.
Consequently, some critics (1,2) will accept
only the chronicle, others (3,4,5) will accept both the factual chronicle
and the interpretative history. Out
of all those (3,4,5) who accept the possibility of history, some (3)
will accept only interpretations that center on the poem itself and
especially the form, some (4) will accept only interpretations that
link the poem to the envelope of making and responding and especially
the content, others(5) will accept all interpretations – intrinsic
or extrinsic, vehicle-oriented or content-oriented.
Those (4,5) that accept extrinsic interpretations linking the
poem to the envelope of making and responding may choose to see literary
history as a series of events with causes and effects (Taine is an
early example) or as a series of acts of work or play with motives
and functions. The ones seek
explanations, the others seek understanding.
In sum, any literary history worth the name
(that is, passing beyond literary chronicling) has to be a critical
history, assuming of course that the critic, not being a hedonist
or a didacticist, is willing to accept the mantle of a literary historian.
Any literary chronicle can provide a foundation to literary
history, has to be based on facts whether comprehensively presented
as a chronicle or sought out with scholarly thoroughness and critical
sense of relevance as one goes along.
The historian of literature is falling back
on the critic’s insight that a literary work invites uniqueness and
that a literary judgments invites participation from other recipients
in spite of its subjectivity. The
only difference between historical criticism and comparative criticism
is that the former compares works within the same tradition along
the time axis and the latter compares works across differing traditions
along the space axis. The historical and the comparative approach
to literature are simply extensions of literary criticism with its
interpretative judgments and evaluative judgments and thus canot escape
critical commitment. They
are not by any means zones in which the dust will one day finally
settle. Rather, being extensions of literary criticism,
they may even shape the course of history – writing literary history
can become a part of making history.
Kelkar, Ashok R.
1983, Kaviteche sāngtepaṇkartepaṇ,
In : Saudaryavichār, Bomby: Mumabai Marathi Sahitya Sangah. Hindi: Kavitā Kuch kahe-Kuch Kare,
Pūravagraha (Bhopal) nos. 56-7, May-Aug. 1983. English: The Meaning
of a poem and the meaning of poetry, unpublished, 1985.
--------- 1988. Greening of art history. Bahuvacana
(Bhopal) no. 1. (An earlier version of section 4 above in relation
to the visual arts.)
This was published in New Quest no.80:89-95, March-April