Wednesday, September 14, 2016

I Do Not Know Much About Literary Theory

I still have two books I obtained during my last, quite unsuccessful year in grad school: Neue Literaturtheorien - Eine Einführung, edited by Klaus-Michael Bogdal, from its 1st printing in 1990, and Elemente der literarischen Rhetorik by Heinrich Lausberg, in its 9th printing from 1987. 2 books with covers which look like right-angled minimalist modern art on white backgrounds.

At this very minute, perhaps for the first time in a quarter-century, it occurs to me that perhaps I associate the 2 books with each other because of the spare designs of their white covers, and that perhaps the look of the covers and the fact that both of them baffle me is about the sum of what they have in common.

Amazon's German website says of the book edited by Bogdal: "Die Einführung in die neuen Literaturtheorien erfreut sich seit ihrem Erscheinen 1990 großen Zuspruchs." ("The Introduction to New Literary Theories has been in great demand since its first appearance in 1990.") That makes it sound like it's been a huge success and gone through many editions since 1990, but it's copied from the back cover of the 3rd edition of 1993, which is the newest edition I can find. Oops.

Yesterday I dug out my copy of this collection of pieces on literary theories which were new in 1990, edited by Klaus-Michael Bogdal, because the phrase "the text itself" came into my mind as I observed some people who were turned off by a new novel without having read it yet, because they felt it had been over-hyped, and I felt that that was an odd reaction, because whether the publisher behaved in an annoying or asinine way or not, it wasn't going to make the novel -- "the text itself" -- one bit better or worse than it was. So I thought, maybe, at last, I would find some way of understanding Bogdal's book by way of my attitudes toward "the text itself." But when I googled the phrase "the text itself," I found associations to something which had called itself the New Criticism in the mid-20th century, and I was not at all sure whether this New Criticism had anything at all to with Bogdal's late-20th-century new literary theories -- other than their both having to do with literature. I can't find any references to Eliot, Brooks or Tate, leaders of the often conservative-to-reactionary New Criticism, in Dr Bogdal index, which seems much farther to the left, with its many references to Foucault, Freud, Marx and Derrida.

Then again, despite grave Right-Left political differences, perhaps the New Criticism's attitude toward "the text itself" had been adopted by people like Foucault and Derrida? Perhaps it has become quite widely adopted since the mid-20th century?

I don't know. I can barely get through one sentence in Bogdal's book. "Obwohl beide, Derrida und de Man, eine prinzipielle Differenz zwischen philosophischen und literarischen Texten verneinen, bleibt als Frage, ob und inwiefern sich literarische und philosophische Texte zu ihrer textuellen Bestimmtheit unterschiedlich verhalten." What?! Ohhhh, my brain! My brain! Owwwwww!

Lausberg (1912-1992), in addition to his Elemente der literarischen Rhetorik, wrote a Handbuch der literarischen Rhetorik, which contained about 6 times as many pages as the Elemente, and had a 4th printing in 2008. In the graduate class in which we used the Elemente, I'm pretty sure reference was made to the Handbuch, as something which some of us would surely want to look into sometime later in our careers.

That's about all I can tell you about literary rhetoric. I'm still not sure whether to classify it under literary theory. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that literary theory is to rhetoric as fruit is to wristwatch.

I. Don't. Know.

Just as it only now occurs to me that the greatest point of relationship between Bogdal's book and Lausberg's may be the designs of the covers,

so too have I only now begun to wonder whether my great difficulty with both of these books may be examples of something which up until now I assumed didn't exist: autism interfering with my comprehension of things taught in classrooms. I don't remember any of the other grad students reacting negatively to either of these books or appearing to panic in the grip of dire cluelessness.

You know, now that I've started to think about it, I think there have been a lot of items on that list -- the list of things taught in classrooms which I never understood because I'm autistic -- rather than zero. But this may have been -- this may continue to be -- one of the prime examples, one of the most difficult things.

Or two completely different extremely difficult things which I continue to erroneously associate with each other because of 2 coincidentally similar-looking book covers.

A quarter-century ago I was egregiously hostile toward Bogdal's book. I wonder how obvious it was to my fellow grad students and whoever was teaching the class where we used this book that I was lashing because subconsciously I was afraid because I was clueless? I'm not hostile to either of the books today. I enjoy holding them, uncomprehendingly, like a monkey. Especially since I covered their covers with scotch tape.

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