First known as a kephalaion in Greek, capitulum or caput in Latin, the chapter arose in antiquity as a finding device within long, often heterogenous prose texts, prior even to the advent of the codex. By the 4th century ce, it was no longer unusual for texts to be composed in capitula; but it is with the advent of the fictional prose narratives we call the novel that the chapter, both ubiquitous and innocuous, developed into a compositional practice with a distinct way of thinking about biographical time. A technique of discontinuous reading or “consultative access” which finds a home in a form for continuous, immersive reading, the chapter is a case study in adaptive reuse and slow change. One of the primary ways the chapter became a narrative form rather than just an editorial practice is through the long history of the chaptering of the Bible, particularly the various systems for chaptering the New Testament, which culminated in the early 13th century formation of the biblical chaptering system still in use across the West. Biblical chapters formed a template for how to segment ongoing plots or actions which was taken up by writers, printers, and editors from the late medieval period onward; pivotal examples include William Caxton’s chaptering of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur in his 1485 printing of the text, or the several mises en proses of Chrétien de Troyes’s poems carried out in the Burgundian court circle of the 15th century. By the 18th century, a vibrant set of discussions, controversies, and experiments with chapters were characteristic of the novel form, which increasingly used chapter titles and chapter breaks to meditate upon how different temporal units understand human agency in different ways. With the eventual dominance of the novel in 19th-century literary culture, the chapter had been honed into a way of thinking about the segmented nature of biographical memory, as well as the temporal frames—the day, the year, the episode or epoch—in which that segmenting occurs; chapters in this period were of an increasingly standard size, although still lacking any formal rules or definition. Modernist prose narratives often played with the chapter form, expanding it or drastically shortening it, but these experiments usually tended to reaffirm the unit of the chapter as a significant measure by which we make sense of human experience.
Michelle P. Brown
The codex occupies an iconic role in Western culture. Usually narrowly applied to the folded book form of the age of print, it owes its origins and development to pre-print manuscript culture. As early as the 1st century ce, the Roman poet Martial was recommending that his readers buy the new codex form. But then, as now, publishers were slow to retool, and the ancient scroll technology continued until the 4th century, when the codex, initially the preserve of the underclasses (notably the early Christians, who valued it for its portability and cross-referencing suitability), achieved popularity as the focus of Christianity, a religion of the book. Wax tablets—the less formal medium of the day—continued in use for drafting of text and image and for informal purposes into the early 20th century. From the 5th century onward the use of decoration and paratextual features such as punctuation served to help navigate and articulate the text and images, illustrated the narrative, or explored the multivalent meaning of text through image. Both men and women, religious and secular, wealthy or poor, figured in the production of medieval books, as authors, makers, and users. Documentary evidence and that detected within the books themselves gives a picture of the ways in which literary works were composed, captured in writing, published, disseminated, and accessed. Each manuscript is unique, but together they provide a portal into a thousand years of thought.
So strong is the cultural desire for an independent and original theory of comedy that Aristotle is imagined to have penned, aside from his glancing treatments of comedy in the Poetics, a critical assessment of the genre, now lost. The symbolic absence of this presumed Aristotelian treatise speaks volumes for the near unattainability of such a critical endeavor. Comedy is at times conceptualized as a generative “umbrella” genre that subsumes other adjoining modes of literary figuration—satire, parody, romance, irony, joke, word play, farce, and stand-up—all while being routinely subject to cultural and theoretical conflation with humor, laughter, amusement, wit, and other physiological as well as intellectual triggers or responses to the comic. The generic contours of comedy are ever-expanding and helplessly slippery. Comedy embodies divergences and dualities. Its anthropological association with fertility rituals at its generic inception suggests privilege and respectability, but Plato’s prejudice against comedy as fit for slaves and outcasts, together with Aristotle’s identification of comedy with lowliness and ugliness, conditions the perception of the genre as relatively vulgar, inferior, and base when examined alongside its nobler counterpart, tragedy. Comedy’s capacity to channel expressions for behavioral deviation in the Feasts of Fools qualifies the genre as a social subversive, but that comedy is conducive to societal stability as a safety valve for discontentedness and insurgence proves that the genre wields the potential of a social fixative. Comedy is said to be grounded on malice and superiority, but playwrights throughout the ages have used it to advance virtue. It is in and between these seemingly irreconcilable contradictions that theoretical abstractions of this elusive genre may be attempted.
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: A Literary History
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.
Literature and Disability in the English Renaissance
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.
The Politics and Aesthetics of Utopian Literature: From the “Golden Age” Myth to the Renaissance
From its earliest beginnings in the Western world to the end of the Renaissance, utopian literature has developed in four primary ways: as myth about the blissful but vanished past of humanity; as prophecy about a future state of bliss, particularly in millennial visions of the post-apocalyptic kingdom of God; as explicitly posited philosophical and rationalist speculation on how an ideal or at least plausibly better city and society could be attained; and as full-blown fiction, which deploys a range of fictional speech acts. Though in certain ways its ideational origins lie in a rich interplay of topoi derived from mythic antiquity and from the Hellenistic, Roman, and early Christian cultural world, utopian literature in its most formally complex form—that of the utopian fiction—only arises in the Renaissance. In this form, which will ultimately yield the utopian novel of the 19th century, the literary utopia occupies an idiosyncratic position between realism and fantasy fiction, lacking grounding in verisimilar space or time, but also eschewing the ahistoricism and escapism of fantasy. Utopian literature has been mostly understood in terms of moral and sociological functions, ranging from its utility as an instrument of anticipation, or at least fertile speculation about the possible and desirable, to its ability to posit norms and regulatory ideals or, more negatively, its penchant for dogmatism and the abstractions of blueprint and method. A different picture emerges, however, if one considers utopias from the standpoint of how they produce social meaning—an approach that foregrounds the role of textual and semiotic factors without making ethical assumptions about the better or worse character of utopian textual worlds. At stake, rather, is the grasp of utopian literature in terms of an organizational imaginary, according to which society is something that can be beneficially re-formed and rearranged after first being critically analyzed as to its constitutive elements and institutions. At their earliest, utopias were the repository of myths about a world free from the pains of labor and the horrors of war, from greed and often from private property as well. By the time of Plato’s philosophical writings in the 4th century bce, utopian vision had become at once more modest and more realistic and technical, most prominently in its connection to social engineering. The earliest elements of playful fictionality emerge in the Hellenistic world, which incorporates the theme of travel and the element of the marvelous, often in a satirical vein. The early Christian world tends toward a divide between allegorical abstraction, particularly in elite versions of Christian Neoplatonism, and the more heterodox possibilities of divinely mediated subversion of established social forms and structures in the millenarianism of the lower classes. The Renaissance utopia, finally, emerges after Sir Thomas More’s homonymous text of 1516 as a complex synthesis and mediation between elite and subaltern pursuits, antiquity and modernity, Christian morality and scientific materialism, constituting utopists themselves as mediators and guarantors of social harmony in an otherwise rapidly changing and turbulent world.
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.
“Romance” is a term that has been variously applied to long-form verse narratives, episodic prose narratives, drama, stories from late Greek antiquity, and a popular subgenre of contemporary mass market fiction. In the 18th and 19th centuries it vied with “novel” as the standard term for the genre (before the latter won out to become part of our common vocabulary). Romance has also become a standard division of Shakespeare’s works, a dramatic genre that, beginning in the 19th century, stood alongside comedy, tragedy, and history as one of the cornerstones of the canon. Indeed, readers and scholars use “romance” so promiscuously as to suggest the near impossibility of drawing its definition with any clarity or meaning. Is the word merely an empty signifier for an incoherent concept? A vague label that is “generic” in the most unhelpful sense? Perhaps, contrarily, “romance” has power as a label because of its variability and range. On a practical level, understanding the pliant ways that readers, publishers, and writers have used this term provides insight to one of the richest (and perhaps oldest) veins of storytelling. Romance also gives us a view of how those same traditions ultimately derive from more ancient and esoteric forms. As it relates to a theory of genre, too, romance has been indispensable. Two of the most important treatments of genre theory, by Northrop Frye and Fredric Jameson, center on romance as a literary and historical practice. To study romance is therefore to study the shapes and traditions of genre itself; to theorize romance is to provide a history and conceptual framework for how genres have worked and continue to work within storytelling practices.
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.