Ashok R. Kelkar



Making and writing Literary History : The Critic's Role*


1. Making History


A 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 it history.


            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?


            Doings 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 (Verstādnis), 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 from here?


            How 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 interpretations.


            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 of poems.


            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 itself continually).


            Making poetic history consists in making a difference to this repertory by way of the following kinds of operations –

1.      Addition to the repertory

2.      Removal from the repertory

3.      Maintenance of the repertory

4.      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 things –


1.1.   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 poetry.


1.2.   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.


1.3.   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  :-


2.1. 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.


2.2. 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.

Maintenance of the repertory means either of two things :-


3.1 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.


3.2. 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.


Re-understanding of the repertory means any of three things –


4.1. 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.


4.2. 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.


4.3. 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 quotations.


            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.





Familyof Critical                

Positions link                     



Parameter of the being-meaning link                     

   Parameter of the              vehicle-content


1.   Hedonism (anandvada)

The work is autonomous

   The medium is transitive


2.   Didactivism (ashayavada) 

The work is transitive

The medium is  transitive

3.   Formalism (rupavada)

The work is autonomous

The medium is autonomous

4.   Vitalism (jivanavada)

The work is transitive

The medium is autonomous

5.Bipolarism (ashayarupavada)

The work is both autonomous  and transitive

The medium is autonomous








            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?


1.      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.


2.      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.


3.      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.


4.      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.


5.      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.


References :


Kelkar, Ashok R. 1983, Kaviteche sāngtepakartepa, 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 1990.