Form, Content and Literary Evolution

September 3, 2008

Northrop Frye, in selections from The Secular Scripture and Claude Guillen, in selections from Literature as a System: Essays toward the Theory of Literary History, take up Aristotle’s distinction between form and content. Frye fleshes out this distinction, arguing that form is the “shaping spirit, the power of ordering” or the “constructive power of the mind” (139), while content is nature, that which is other than the imaginative power of the mind. In itself, form is conventional and formulaic, but content, which introduces reality or verisimilitude, provides the matter that alters rigid formality. Frye utilizes this distinction to support his concept of displacement, stating that displacement (the attenuated presence of the mythic) is the technique used to adjust formal structures into a more or less credible context.

Guillen annexes and supplements the Aristotelian distinction to support his definition of genre as an invitation to the artist to match form and content. To Guillen, form is “the presence in a created, man-made object of a ‘cause’” (36); in other words, it is the structure of creation in context, the manifestation of the creative power of the artist grappling with an historical tradition and an emerging vision of the newness of the object. Content is language and previous forms; it is the raw historical material, a moment existing in and looking back on history, that the author uses to inject meaning into the literary object. While Guillen presents genre as looking backward (at all the particular instances of form-and-content) and forward (into the re-making of the form-and-content, the re-making of the genre itself), I question whether this approach, which does allow for development, fluidity, and history, doesn’t step too far back from a positive definition of genre. Indeed, Guillen might be guilty of playing the Wittgensteinian language game to which he refers: he knows examples of genres, but every definition falls short of incorporating all the examples he knows.

Franco Moretti’s “On Literary Evolution” constructs a “Darwinian theory of literary evolution” (262) or a theory of literature through the lens of “variations dominated by chance and selection governed by necessity” (263) as opposed to a Lamarkian theory of orientation and determinism. Moretti conducts a broad evolutionary reading on the rise of the European novel, but the most productive part of his argument is the theory of literary exaption, an essential piece to his evolutionary argument and a reason in itself for a modernist to get behind the whole theory. In evolutionary terms, exaption refers to an organ that was “originally constructed for one purpose [that is] converted into one for a wholly different purpose” (274). Moretti describes the Shakespearean tragic monologue, which is determined by but not participatory in the plot and consequently not “useful”, as exapted in Modern lyric poetry, which uses as its ordering principle the “effects of estrangement, oxymoron, [and] indecision” (274): the tragic monologue. This approach to the genre as less designed and more useful, entrenched in the material necessity of history but not completely determined by it (systems of power can choose between available forms but do not—necessarily—generate them), and developing quickly rather than slowly and steadily provides a productive framework in which to consider the effect of history, power and social forces on literary production. However, I do wonder about the extent to which this perspective forecloses the possibility of radical innovation, which someone like Guillen is careful to avoid.

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