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Time and Literary Genre 2                                                       





History, historical research, literary history offers the nearest thing to the truth of the time (the time in which it happened – whence the emphasis on the reconstruction of the ‘first reading’, the first reception of the piece as a historical artifact). In this sense ‘genre’ has meanings that are ‘lodged’ in a particular time. But the sense of genre, which offers to us a key to the understanding and indeed, expectation, of what it is we are to consume, what it is we are to enjoy, is inseparable, in the act of reading or experience, from the now moment in which we live – genre may in this sense become temporal, something viewed not as part of a finished past, but of a never to be completed now, a set of directions we carry with us, part of our ‘lodgment’ in time (even when dealing with the past, now a past dated as from now).


Schiller’s insight: Let us look at Schiller’s opposition of ‘naïve’ and ‘sentimental’ genres (often taken, over simplistically, to mean the difference between prose narrative and poetry); we are presented with a, putatively, timeless genre, in opposition to a temporal one. ‘Naïve’ as representing the past as surviving in the present (for example, Romance) as in the survival of history, the calling-up of the (mythical, legendary) past as if before us now, so in this sense timeless (and perhaps suggesting the extension of the trope of prosopopoeia, the calling up of the abstract, absent or dead, to the level of genre). Therefore ‘naïve’ also in the sense that while we read we are to live as if in the past, transported; the past is as if transparently before us, in our home in the ‘eternal present’, so unframed as ‘the past’, that is as the memory it ‘should’ be. In this sense ‘naïve‘ is fiction as such, prose fiction and (or as) Romance; all and any ‘literary illusionism’. All that does not point out its own relation to time (to its status as the past). So ‘timeless’ in the sense of not representing a ‘direction’ in time, but of narrating from the present, to be read as (if) in the present… as if filling out the ‘eternal present’ of our consciousness, so ‘timeless’ in the sense of ‘eternal’ (the belief in which is always… ‘naïve’). The attendant ‘suspension of disbelief’, that permits us the ‘literary illusionism’ of inhabiting another universe (or at least another historical time period) is no doubt behind the use of the term, ‘naïve’. The ‘sentimental’ genres, on the other hand are lodged in time, in our experience of time, are Elegy, Satire and Idyll; temporally ‘marked’ as past, present and future. So temporally deictic, but from the point of view of the present, so with no illusion of being transported (moved, yes, but still conscious of the present -and our place in it- as part of the relation that results); a set of differences which we might gloss as: memorial, topical and oracle (and so applicable to types of poetry and perhaps even ‘moods’ in prose). Satire emphasizes the topicality of the present (we read past satires with present politics in mind). Idyll suggests a meditation on a fantasy future, a ‘dream vision’ with oracular force (Tennyson, ’The Idylls of the King’). Elegy, if its emphasis on reflecting upon the past can be taken as referring to past emotion (“recollected…” etc), and broadened into the making present of an ‘absent’ inner feeling, may come to stand for the Lyric itself.


Schiller’s originality and acuteness in focusing on this, at first sight unlikely, distinction, is shown in the reversal of the opposition championed by Bakhtin; the earthy authenticity of prose (the ‘peoples’ genre) and opposed to the elevated (aristocratic) distance of poetry, reversed in criticism by De Man through his analysis of the Lyric (as reversed in ‘actually-existing’ popular culture by the experience of the popular song lyric). As also reversed in the ‘intuitive’ sense that prose is more natural and closer to our everyday forms of perception than poetry (as formal, artificial etc… yet lending to prose, or crystallizing out from prose, its figurative language). However the moods of remembering, of critical humour (‘taking the p**’) and of day-dreaming, fantasy or wishful thinking are in reality perhaps more intimate… As with the expression of feeling in the Lyric. The form employed opens a window onto directness… just as the form employed allows a parallel with our experience of the past and future as less present (semi-present, or ‘not(quite)present’) as compared to the present as such. Indeed, all reframed by our sojourn in the ‘eternal present’, of our present consciousness, our awareness of the ‘now’ moment – which leaves us only when we sleep…


If the above distinction begins (perhaps somewhat superficially) to resemble the genre difference of poetry and prose, then similar temporal concerns enter the definition of two other major genres: Epic and Drama. For both Goethe and Schiller, the epic represents the past; but drama insists in the present. The notion of the present here indicates our relationship to the genre; we empathise, are moved. So it is that, as even for ancient drama, as long as we consume it as drama, or even if we consume it as ritual (which early Greek drama most certainly was; ‘the play’ of the time was the lesser entertainment of ‘Comedy’) our sense of ‘Drama’ is as of (or ‘as if’ of, pertinent to our plight in) the present epoch (however imagined). If there is no ‘as if’ then we are viewing a historical artifact and not a living art work. The key element is that the play’s agon, or key contradiction, clash or problem, must also become problematic for the viewer, as the lead character is divided, psychologically in his or her loyalties, so the sign of a living drama is that it most easily is found dividing ‘us’ too (much the same could be said of the novel, as indeed of most, emotionally cogent entertainment). It is in this way that the drama becomes, as ‘play’, as affective artwork, a part of ‘our’ now. With the shadow of Myth left as a kind of eternal past, an ‘always-further-back’, an outside, an outside of time, extra-temporal, conceived as pre-temporal, a survival or voice calling out from our pre-history. Our relation to which is that of witnesses to some distant, semi-incomprehensible (because supernatural) event: an event we might once have, in the form of our distant ancestors, taken part in, as participants - as in a ritual. Which is what it would have been, a ritual event, for the societies of the time, those who originated the tales that have come down to us as ‘Myth’. Which is what they were: part of, a ritual performance conjuring-up the mythic past, which the participants then, to differing degrees, reenact, including acts of possession (a pitch of spirit possession perhaps only found in today’s’ method actors). Myth, on this reading takes its place alongside, the ’birth of tragedy’ out of ritual, as one of the sources of Tragedy’s plot. Epics then usually stand on the border of Myth, while (or when) not themselves fully mythologized. The Epic, in this sense, would be the manifestation of the past in the past, between the not-time of Myth and the ‘eternal present’ (as the eternally topical, or eternal topicality) of Drama. Including both Tragedy and Comedy; and in the ‘failed’ Tragedy that is Comedy as in Satire (as we saw in the appropriation of the forms and spirit of Greek Old Comedy in the political ‘satyr’ plays of the ‘60s and ‘70s).


Tragedy performs what Comedy shows… in the former the performance includes the audience, and so is closer to ritual (out of the text, beyond the stage), in the later the performance is by the actors, so showing by characters… their ritual, in the text, on stage. Tragedy is to the Sublime, as Comedy (and happy ending, usually marriage plot) is to the Beautiful (at least in terms of ritual anthropology). Tragedy always refers outside of itself (gods, fate, more recently contradictions of epoch); Comedy remains inside; a plot-internal discovery is the cure of the crisis, or misrecognition (except in the strange case of a deus ex machine - leaving us with an effect similar to comic satire?). So if Comedy shows the movement towards danger and the shaking of self, and then brings the characters (and us as we sympathize) back from the brink; then Tragedy enacts it, we are shaken - and then we come back to reality, reaffirmation, both in the world of the play (not a ‘happy ending’ but a new start built upon the sacrifice of the old, a re-foundation, a ritual renewal, a new order), and in life… the play ends, we leave the theatre.


Drama as the eternal present versus eternity… (the elements of Ritual, of Myth). The eternally topical versus the eternal meta-frame…






Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2012