An enumeration of generic qualities will define epic less helpfully than will an assessment of its behaviors. Among major literary kinds, epic offers the most long-standing and globally distributed evidence of the human habit of thinking by means of narrative. What it cherishes is the common good; what it ponders are the behaviors and values that forward or threaten collective welfare. What it reckons are the stakes of heroic risk that any living culture must hazard in order to prosper, by negotiating core identities with margins and adjusting settled customs to emergent opportunities; and it roots all these in the transmission of a tale that commands perennial attention on their account. Such dialectics underlie epic’s favorite narrative templates, the master plots of strife, quest, and foundation; and they find expression in such conventions as the in medias res opening and suspended closure; the epic invocation, ancestral underworld, superhuman machinery, and encyclopedic simile; the genre’s formal gravitation towards verse artifice and the lexical and syntactic mingling of old with new language. The genre steadfastly highlights the human condition and prospect, defining these along a scale of higher and lower being, along a timeline correlating history with prophecy, and along cultural coordinates where the familiar and the exotic take each other’s measure.
Literacy is a measure of being literate, of the ability to read and write. The central activity of the humanities—its shared discipline—literacy has become one of its most powerful and diffuse metaphors, becoming a broadly applied metaphor representing a fluency, a competency, or a skill in manipulating information. The word “literacy” is of recent coinage, being little more than a century old. Reading and writing, or effectively using letters (the word at the root of literacy), are ancient skills, but the word “literacy” likely springs from and reflects the emergence of mass public education at the end of the 19th and the turn of the 20th century. In this sense, then “literacy” measures personal and demographic development. Literacy is mimetic. It is synesthetic—in some languages, it means hearing sounds (the phonemes) in what is seen (the letters); in others, it means linking a symbol to the thing symbolized. Although a recent word, “literacy” depends upon the emergence of symbolic sign systems in ancient times. Written symbolic systems, by contrast, are relatively recent developments in human history. But they bear a more complicated relationship to the spoken language, being in part a representation of it (and thus a recording of its contents) while also offering a representation of the world, the referent: that is, literacy involves an awareness of the representation of the world. Reading and writing are tied to millennia of changes in technologies of representation. As a term denoting fluidity with letters, literacy has a history and a geography that follow the development and movement of a phonetic alphabetic and subsequent systems of writing. If the alphabet encodes a shift from orality to literacy, HTML encodes a shift from verbal literacy to a kind of numerical literacy not yet theorized.
Disability—whether physical, mental, or sensory—is widely represented in Early Modern literature, and as such it has been attracting attention from 21st-century literary scholars, who apply the theoretical and critical tools of disability studies to Renaissance narratives and literary characters. Literary disability in its various forms can be analyzed in the light of various models of disability, including medical, social, moral, or cultural. This helps in understanding early modern representations and experiences of disability in culture and history and making sense of reactions to disability in the period: including stigma, mockery, proud identification with the disabled identity, or also a desire for it. Physical disabilities in the Renaissance encompass anything from deformity to bodily mutilation to dwarfism or monstrosity, and they are especially prone to be emphasized, explained, or scrutinized in search of their meaning. Sensory disabilities, including blindness, deafness, and mutism, prompt interpretations that connect physical impairment with the character’s inability or surprising ability to understand reality—whether in a pragmatic or spiritual sense. Intellectual and mental disabilities have many ramifications in early modern literature, some of which, such as fools and madmen, are staple types of drama. Intellectual and mental disabilities are often described in medical terms, but literary texts tend to differentiate between them, whether in technical or narrative terms. Foolishness normally turns into comedy, whereas madness is often connected with tragic characters undergoing mental breakdowns. Renaissance disability studies are also concerned with less obvious types of disability: disabilities that were disabilities in the past but not in the 21st century, concealed disabilities, and disabilities that are not actually disabilities but do foster a conversation that excludes the character who does not embody what society regarded as the ideal physical shape. Finally, instances of counterfeited disability and disability attached to concepts rather than people help understand how Renaissance culture often viewed the nonstandard body not only as something to beware of or reject but also as an image of empowerment.
Although Freud’s key claims regarding unconscious processes are pervasive in psychoanalytic theory, psychoanalysis is not a singular unified system. Early originating frameworks have evolved to adapt to changing clinical practices. In Britain, Freud’s work was complicated by the work of Klein, and later by the British Object Relations school, and still later by the inclusion of empirical research from John Bowlby’s attachment theory. In France and Latin America, Lacan gained dominance; in the United States, early work in “ego psychology” was supplemented by Kohutian “self-psychology” and later by “relational psychoanalysis.” In the academy, the work of Slavoj Zizek, synthesizing Lacanian and Marxist theory, has had wide influence. All these perspectives offer different accounts of the legacies of the past in their impact on unconscious expression. Early applications of psychoanalysis to literature were concerned with the origins of creativity and the neurotic conditions of literary characters or authors. Subsequent interests have focused on the nature of literary language and the dynamics of readerly engagements. In the early 21st century, use of psychoanalysis as an analytic tool follows the model of a conversation. The goal is not to apply a theory to a text to illustrate a psychoanalytic truth but to tease out the “unsaid” of a text or set of texts. Psychoanalysis in literary engagements, as in clinical engagements, is not about establishing a truth; instead it is used in “dialogue” with another discourse to discover implicit or unacknowledged dimensions of that articulation. The diversity of psychoanalytic schools and concepts allows scholars to give attention to wide-ranging interests: to the grip of ideology on subject, to the unconscious thematics of authors, to the symptomatic conditions of culture. Popular subjects for the psychoanalytic study of literature or film are psychic conflict, suffering, anxiety, enjoyment, the uncanny, and the repressed. Following World War II, the Frankfurt school synthesized Freud with Marxist thought, laying out enduring parameters for the psychoanalytic study of social processes. Adorno and Horkheimer sought to understand totalitarian character and mass culture and explored literature as a response to ideological enlistment. Recent work by “the Lacanian Left” in political theory explores libidinal and affective dimensions of discourse. “Psychosocial studies” scholars in Britain utilize psychoanalytic principles to gain more complex information from interviews and social research designs. Contemporary work in neuropsychoanalysis develops empirical evidence to document psychoanalytic processes in the organizational patterns of the brain, particularly in the dynamics of dreaming, memory, and nonconscious behavior. All these newly emerging engagements with psychoanalytic thought offer opportunities for contemporary research.
The topic of rhythm in literary theory draws both on discussions of poetry and prose and on much broader currents of thought in the natural sciences and philosophy. In Western thought, rhythm was a central focus of attention in ancient Greece, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when theorists and practitioners of literature and the other arts often referred back to classical models. This is also the case in more recent theorizing of rhythm in the context of everyday life in advanced modern or, as some would say, postmodern societies. Nietzsche, who constantly circled around the term and with frequent direct and metaphorical references to dance, is in many ways the central figure in these discussions. He was massively influential after his death in 1900, both in Germany and more widely, for example, in Britain and North America, and he was taken up again, along with Heidegger, in much French thought after World War 2. Contemporary debates around rhythm and its relation to meter continue to refer to classical Greece, and in Chinese and Indian thought there is a similar continuity of attention to issues of rhythm.
Stephanie Burt and Jenn Lewin
Ideas about song, and actual songs, inform literary works in ways that go back to classical and to biblical antiquity. Set apart from non-musical language, song can indicate proximity to the divine, intense emotion, or distance from the everyday. At least from the early modern period, actual songs compete with idealized songs in a body of lyric poetry where song is sometimes scheme and sometimes trope. Songs and singers in novels can do the work of plot and of character, sometimes isolating songwriter or singer, and sometimes linking them to a milieu beyond what readers are shown. Accounts of song as poetry’s inferior, as its other, or as its unreachable ideal—while historically prominent—do not consider the variety of literary uses in English that songs—historically attested and fictional; popular, vernacular, and “classical”— continue to find.