Monday 15 December 2008

Life and Literature II, by Jens Brockmeier and Maria Medved

Literary texts are not created in everyday situations. But they may start and develop out of them. One can argue that modern literature starts in the thirteenth century with Dante. For Dante it was the love of his life, Beatrice, that prompted him to write the book of this love, Vita Nuova (The New Life), as Keith Oatley (2007) has reminded us (see also his post on September 9, 2008). The book consists of poems joined by autobiographical pieces and critical comments, mostly revolving around Dante’s love for Beatrice. For the first time in European literature there is not only divine love but also human love. For the first time human passions are considered a worthy subject of literary—and psychological—reflection and articulation. They appear as human not only because they are pronounced in words of everyday Italian, instead of Latin, but also because they are grounded in human life, in a real-life autobiographical fabric, as fragmentary and coarsely meshed it may have been. Oatley refers to Auerbach’s (1929) study on Dante’s anti-Platonic turn, a turn from the world of ideals to the world of earthly human concerns, concerns that can be named, described, and communicated in language and, what’s more, examined and reflected upon as elements of joint “intentional systems.” In Dante, as Auerbach maintained, we encounter the first real characters in European literature. We might think of figures in frescos by Giotto: concrete human individuals, with particular lives and experiences, stories and memories.

The invention of the human is the title of a book by Harold Bloom (1998) on Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets in which he sets forth a similar argument for the English language. The scenarios of human lives and experiences unfolded by Shakespeare—who already drew, besides his own experiences, on a variety of historical and literary sources—essentially defined Western ideas of character and passion. They shaped the imagination of many generations of readers and audiences of theater, opera, and film, including countless writers, artists, philosophers, and psychologists. Fusing these traditions of imagining human life with their own experiences set free a continuous discursive interplay that created what Richard Rorty would call the autobiographical vocabularies of the eighteenth and nineteenth century and finally of modernity. In other words, what we see emerging here is the cultural repertoire of contemporary autobiographical self-understanding in the West.

This repertoire, like language in general, is used and modified in the exchange of a great variety of cultural discourses in which our lives and their meanings are constantly re-described and re-defined. If we look at this cultural continuum of autobiographical self-practices, literary or not, from an historical point of view —comparing, for example, the ideas of memory and self in Dante’s world with those in Shakespeare’s and in Proust’s world —we see that the difference between life and literature dwindles even more. When those writers, psychologists, and clinicians meet, they should be able to quickly figure out what they mean by autobiographical narrative, and indeed, usually they do.

Erich Auerbach, E. (1961). Dante, poet of the secular world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (German 1929).

Harold Bloom (1998). Shakespeare: The invention of the human. New York: Riverhead.

Keith Oatley (2007). Dante’s love and the creation of a new poetry. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 1, 140 –147.

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