From "The Soul and the Harpy:  Reflections on the Aims and Methods of Literary Historiography" (in Signs Taken for Wonders, 1988 revised ed.)

By Franco Moretti

Forme is power.
(Hobbes, Leviathan)

[ . . . ]

1.  Rhetoric and History

'Rhetoric is like a branch . . . of the science dealing with behaviour, which it is right to call political.'  Aristotle's words (Rhetoric 1356a) prefigure those researches of the last few decades aimed at demonstrating that rhetorical conventions exist in order to satisfy specifically social requirements.  Thus Kenneth Burke in 1950: 'The Rhetoric must lead us through the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Market Place, the flurries and flare-ups of the Human Barnyard, the Give and Take, the wavering line of pressure and counter-pressure, the logomachy, the onus of ownership, the Wars of Nerves, the War . . . .   Its ideal culminations are more often beset by strife as the condition of their organized expression, or material embodiment.  Their very universality becomes transformed into a partisan weapon.  For one need not scrutinize the concept of "identification" very sharply to see, implied in it at every turn, its ironic counterpart:  division.  Rhetoric is concerned with the state of Babel after the Fall.  Its contribution to a "sociology of knowledge" must often carry us far into the lugubrious regions of malice and lie.' (1)  Thus also, to cite someone who is intellectually at the opposite pole from Burke, Giulio Preti in 1968:  'Rhetorical discourse is a discourse addressed to a particular (I prefer to call it a "determinate") audience . . . .  In other words, rhetorical argument starts from presuppositions as well as from feelings, emotions, evaluations--in a word, "opinions" (doxai)--which it supposes to be present and at work in its audience.'  And further on, commenting on some passages from the Logique du Port-Royal:  'Two things stand out in particular here:  the first is the emotional character underlying these kinds of non-rational persuasion, an emotional character indicated a little crudely by terms like "amour propre," "interest," "utility," "passion," but which is nonetheless quite definite . . . .  The second is the typically social character of these forms of sophism: they are linked to man's relations to other men within the nation, the social group of the institution.  this social character is contrasted with the universality of rational conviction.' (2)

Rhetoric has a social emotive, partisan character, in short, an evaluative character.  To persuade is the opposite of to convince.  The aim is not to ascertain an intersubjective truth but to enlist support for a particular system of values.  In the seventeenth century--which witnessed the first great flowering of empirical science, and at the same time the collapse of all social 'organicity' in the fight to the death between opposing faiths and interest--the perception of this contrast was extremely acute. [ . . . ]

So far we have discussed the social character of rhetorical conventions.  But the argument applies also to literary conventions.  Rhetoric is concerned with so many and such different activities (law, politics, ethics, advertising . . .) that it would be mistaken to restrict it just to literature, yet literary discourse is entirely contained within the rhetorical domain.  As Preti puts it in a flawless passage: 'Epideictic discourse, which was the least valued in antiquity (precisely because it is the most . . . "rhetorical" in a derogatory sense) is nowadays however the one which takes on the greatest importance.  It can even be said that in present-day philosophy of culture it is the only one with any interest, precisely because it does not have narrow practical ends, but a cultural, "paedeutic" aim.  And above all because it provides the genus of literary discourse in prose.  It bears on moral values, and in general on the values of a civilization.  It aims at reinforcing or arousing attitudes (feelings) not just as regards a contingent (legal or political) decision, but as regards the great values that make up a civilization.  Precisely because of its non-practical character, it is unlikely to degenerate from a discourse of persuasion to one of propaganda.  It is above all the structures and rules of this kind of discourse which are the object of the new Rhetoric.' (4)

The evaluative and persuasive character of literary discourse emerges sharply in that area of the rhetorical tradition with which literary criticism is most familiar, namely 'figures,' and particularly in the 'queen of poetry'--metaphor.  Far from being 'aesthetic' ornaments of discourse, places where the strategy of persuasion is attenuated or disappears, figures show themselves to be unrivaled mechanisms for welding into an indivisible whole description and evaluation, "judgements of fact' and 'judgements of value.' [ . . . ]

'Passion,' the 'emotions,' 'feeling':  these indicate that uncertain object that literary criticism can choose to ignore but which does not thereby disappear from its field of operation.  As Pascal said, feeling 'acts in a flash, and is always ready to act.'  He traced it back to 'habit,' to that 'spontaneous' cultural reaction ('we are automatism as well as spirit .  . . ') which tells us with ruthless clarity just how profoundly our psychical apparatus is determined by the socio-historical context.

Rhetoric, then, addresses itself to 'feeling' precisely because it is concerned with evoking and disciplining the most purely social parts of us.  The most 'automatically' social, we should say, with Pascal in mind, but also recalling the theory of metaphor put forward by Max Black.  Metaphor for Black appears as simply unthinkable outside a whole system of moral and cognitive commonplaces (rhetoric, as Aristotle had said, is the art of using commonplaces well) which are used and accepted without any longer being subjected to any control" 'Consider the statement "man is a wolf" . . . .  The metaphorical sentence in question will not convey its intended meaning to a reader sufficiently ignorant about wolves.  What is needed is not so much that the reader shall know the standard dictionary meaning of "wolf"--or be able to use that word in literal senses--as that he shall know what I will call the system of associated commonplaces. . . .  From the expert's standpoint, the system of commonplaces may include half-truths or downright mistakes (as when a whale is classified as a fish); but the important thing for the metaphor's effectiveness is not that the commonplaces shall be true, but that they should be readily and freely evoked.  (Because this is so, a metaphor that works in one society may seem preposterous in another).' (6)

Seen in this light, the more a rhetorical formulation is turned into a commonplace (or rather--but it is the same thing--the more it has become 'implicit,' unnoticeable to us) the more persuasive it will be: 'To us it seems that the value of "dead" metaphors in argument is above all prominent because of the great force of persuasion they possess when, with the aid of one technique or another, they are put back into action.  This force results from the fact that they draw their effects from an analogic material which is easily admitted because it is not only known, but integrated, by means of language, into the cultural tradition.' (7)  'Someone who uses a form from the rhetorical system does not have to think, or be consciously aware at that moment, that he is using that form, just as someone driving a car does not have to think, or be consciously aware at that moment, how many cylinders the engine has or how it works . . . the knowledge  of rhetorical forms by the listener can in fact jeopardize the effect the speaker hopes to arouse with those forms, in that the effect is subjected to the listener's control. (8)

Rhetorical figures, and the larger combinations which organize long narratives, are thus of a piece with the deep, buried, invisible presuppositions of every world view.  This is why one duly turns to them every time one has to put into focus a particularly complex experience (one can practically speak about time only in metaphors) or to express a judgement that possesses particular importance (almost all emotional language--from 'honey' to 'scum' and beyond--is a long chain of metaphors).  I said just now that rhetorical forms are 'of a piece' with the deepest presuppositions of every Weltanschauung.  The examples just adduced invite us to go further, to suggest that they are the most widespread form, and in certain cases the only form, in which those presuppositions continue to manifest themselves.  Their lasting and undetected effectiveness points to the wide field of study of the unconscious culture, the implicit knowledge, of every civilization.  It has indeed become difficult to imagine an adequate social history of 'consensus' that does not understand the techniques of persuasion.  Reciprocally, literary criticism--as a sociology of rhetorical forms--would have everything to gain from contact with the history of mentalities outlined by the Annales school: 'Inertia, a fundamental historical force, . . . is more a fact of minds than one of mater, since the later is often quicker to act than the former.  Men make use of the machines they invent while retaining the mentality of prior technical stages.  Drivers of motor-cars have a horse-rider's vocabulary, nineteenth-century factory workers have the mentality of their peasant fathers and grandfathers.  Mentality is what changes most slowly.  The history of mentalities is the history of slowness in history.' (9)  Yet it would of course be wrong to say that literature is limited to 'bringing back to life' the rhetorico-ideological forms already deposited in tradition.  Literature is traversed by continuous, at times traumatic, innovation:  'daring figures, works that on their appearance were rejected as 'incomprehensible' or 'absurd' are the most visible evidence of this second side of the question.  Yet this does not in the least 'prove'--as is often believed, for the most varied reasons--that 'real' literature is by its nature anti-conventional, and that its interpretation will therefore impel us 'beyond' rhetorical analysis.

Let us begin with the second point.  Rhetorical theory is by no means unable to account for the evolutionary character or even the ruptures of literary history.  Harald Weinrich's analysis of metaphor in text-linguistic terms aims precisely at explaining the culturally innovative function that it can, if necessary, come to exercise.  Indeed when Weinrich notes that metaphor is a 'contradictory predication', he shows that the relation between 'topic' and 'comment,' or subject and predicate, established by metaphorical combination is never, originally, a 'peaceful' one but always implies a 'risky' transition between the two terms.(10)  The predication proposed by metaphor--in its interweaving of description and evaluation--can just as well be repulsed.  The inert, counter-determinant context can prove too rigid and thus make the predication seem incomprehensible.  Literary history, after all, abounds in rhetorical experiments that seem relegated forever to the limbo of absurdity.  But it also abounds--and this is the point--in experiments that seemed absurd and yet now appear not only entirely acceptable but actually indispensable--experiments that have become established as 'commonplaces.' [ . . . ]  When faced with a text that violates the conventions of its time, therefore, critical analysis cannot remain content with the half-truth that tells us how it did so.  It cannot look, as it usually does, only at the  past, at the dislodged convention or the deconstructed Weltanschauung.  The future of a text--the conventions and the world views it will help to form and consolidate--is just as much a part of its history and its contribution to history.  This consideration is taken for granted in other kinds of historical studies.  Only literary criticism--prey to superstitions specific to itself, as we shall see shortly--has claimed exemption.  There is no good reason for this, not only with respect to historiography, but also in the light of rhetorical theory itself.  Because rhetoric--remember Kenneth Burke's words--is the daughter of division and strife.  By the mere fact of its existence, it bears witness to a society divided, in conflict.  It is an entity that continually transforms itself, historical in its essence.  Rhetorical 'daring' testifies to a will that wants to overturn the power relations of the symbolic order.  'Commonplaces' and semantic inertia, for their part, are the potential result of that daring no less than its opposite.  This is the sense of a memorable passage by Erwin Panofsky: 'art is not, as a point of view which excessively accentuates its opposition to the theory of imitation would like one to believe, a subjective expression of feeling or an existential occupation of certain individuals, but rather an objectifying and realizing conflict, aiming at meaningful results, between a forming power and a material to be overcome.' (11)  Even the tone of this sentence makes it clear that, for Panofsky, there would be nothing wrong in seeing the history of art as an articulation of the history of social conflicts and violence:  as a history of conflicts in he sphere of aesthetic forms. (12)  It is no longer a question, then, of contrasting rhetorical (or ideological) 'consent' with aesthetic 'dissent,' but of recognizing that there are different moments in the development of every system of consent, and above all different ways of furthering it. . . . --in particular social contexts even 'open,' 'non-organic,' or 'obscure' aesthetic forms can function as instruments of consent.

Knowledge of the socio-historical context of a literary work or genre is not therefore an 'extra' to be kept in the margins of rhetorical analysis.  In general, whether one is aware of it or not, such knowledge furnishes the starting point for interpretation itself, providing it with those initial hypotheses without which rhetorical mechanisms would be hard to understand, or would tell us very little indeed. [ . . . ]

Yet, although rhetorical analysis refines and extends the territory of the social sciences and the latter, for their part, provide ti with that historical framework outside of which the very existence of rhetorical conventions would be meaningless, it should not therefore be thought that the connection between the two conceptual apparatuses, and the set of phenomena they refer to, is linear and predictable.  True isomorphisms never occur, and from this categorical discrepancy stems the set of problems that characterizes literary history.

2.  Literary Historiography--and Beyond

Literary texts are historical products organized according to rhetorical criteria.  The main problem of a literary criticism that aims to be in all respects a historical discipline is to do justice to both aspects of its objects:  to work out a system of concepts which are both historiographic and rhetorical.  These would enable one to perform a dual operation: to slice into segments the diachronic continuum constituted by the whole set of literary texts (the strictly historical task), but to slice ti according to formal criteria pertaining to that continuum and not others (the strictly rhetorical task).

To a large extent, such a theoretical apparatus already exists. It is centered on the concept of 'literary genre.'  I do not think it is accidental that, in the twentieth century, the best results of historical-sociological criticism are to be found in works aimed at defining the internal laws and historical range of a specific genre:  from the novel in Lukacs to the baroque drama in Benjamin, from French classical tragedy in Goldmann to (in a kindred field) the twelve-note system in Adorno.  Yet there is no doubt that the concept of literary genre has not yet acquired the prominence it deserves, or that it could lead to a very different structuring of literary history from the one familiar to us.

[ . . . ]

We can now return to the role of the concept of genre in slicing up and reordering the continuum of literary history.  Something immediately strikes us.  A history of literature built round this concept will be both 'slower' and more 'discontinuous' than the one we are familiar with.  Slower, because the idea of literary genre itself requires emphasis on what a set of works have in common.  It presupposes that literary production takes place in obedience to a prevailing system of laws and that the task of criticism is precisely to show the extent of their coercive, regulating power.  The idea of genre introduces into literary history the dimension which the Annales school has called longue duree, and supports the hypothesis that 'art is without doubt more suited to the expression of states of civilization than moments of violent rupture.' (17)

This is a change of perspective whose consequences it is difficult, and in part also idle, to predict.  but one thing is certain:  it will force one to re-examine from the foundations upwards the historiographical status of literary criticism.  Tottering and obsolete in this respect, literary history has never ceased to be histoire evenementielle, where the 'events' are great works or great individuals.  Even the great historical controversies, when all is said, turn almost exclusively on the reinterpretation of an extremely small number of works and authors.  This procedure condemns the concept of genre to a subaltern, marginal function, as is indicated most starkly n the formalist couple convention-defamiliarization, where genre appears as a mere background, an opaque plane whose only use is to make the difference of the masterpiece more prominent.  Just as the 'even' breaks and ridicules the laws of continuity, so the masterpiece is there to demonstrate the 'triumph' over the norm, the irreducibility of what is really great.

The problems here are many and intertwined.  But keeping ot the essential, let us at least ask two questions.  First, how far has empirical research borne out the antithesis between norm and masterpiece on which literary historiography continues to rest?  In what sense does Shakespeare 'violate' the conventions of Elizabethan tragedy?  Why not say the opposite:  that he was the only writer able to realize them fully, establishing as it were the 'ideal type' of an entire genre?  Does Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship 'defamiliarize' the conventions of the Bildungsroman?  Is not the opposite the case: that with his novel Goethe founds them and makes them reproducible?  Examples could be multiplied.  Here again, in essence, is the problem we dealt with in discussing the relation between the 'commonplace' and the 'daring' in rhetoric.  What is at issue once more is the orientation of the historian's gaze:  whether one should look only at what is behind the masterpiece, unilaterally emphasizing a break, a rupture of the historical tissue--or whether, by showing the consequences of every great work, one should accentuate its function as a genuine producer of historical 'stability.'

It seems evident to me that the first orientation is still the more common; and the reason is not hard to find.  The fact is that criticism has not entirely freed itself of its old task: that of being a sort of cultivated accompaniment to reading--to the reading we are doing here and now. Since certain works continue to be read, the desire spontaneouslv arises of showing that they are 'contemporary' and thus of emphasizing what allows them to be wrenched out of the hard earth of the past and laid in our lap. This betokens a relationship with texts whose distant roots lie in Greek, and above all in Christian allegorical exegesis.'" It is based on the belief, however banalized nowadays, that there are messages in the past that not only concern us but which in a sense were written for us and us alone, and whose meaning will be fully revealed only in the light of our exegesis. An agreeable superstition indeed and a highly useful one 'for life': but for precisely this reason it concerns the student of the contemporary mentality, not the historian. The latter - unless desirous of turning into that legendary figure whose only pleasure lay in contemplating his own reflection - must concentrate on the dissimilarities and ruptures: on what has been lost and become irretrievably unfamiliar, and which we can 're-familiarize' only by doing such violence to it that we distort the objective, material consistency of every work which it is the task of scientific knowledge to reconstruct and 'salvage'.

The improper and distorting centrality that contemporary 'taste' has won at the expense of historical criticism brings us to the second question. At the end of the nineteenth century hundreds of ghost stories were written, but The Turn of the Screw is something else. Agreed; or rather, it is something else 'for us', the tiny minority that acts in each case as the depository of prevailing taste. But is the task of the historian of culture always and only to ask what, in the past or the present, makes possible the 'separation' of an elite from the mass of the public? Is it not rather to deal with the mass conventions, the great ideological agreements by which each age is distinguished from others? But - it might be objected - the average production of a given genre is unreadable and boring now. I do not doubt it. But it is precisely this unbearable 'uncontemporaneity' that the historian must seek out. (We might reflect in passing that if everyone behaved like literary critics who only study what they 'like', doctors might restrict themselves to studying only healthy bodies and economists the standard of living of the well-off.) And then, are we so sure that we know those 'other' ghost stories, the 'conventional' ones? Have these conventions really been studied, or do we not rather confine ourselves to evoking them hurriedly for the sole purpose of adding lustre to their 'destroyer'? If one wants to keep the couple convention-innovation and give the latter term the full historical and formal weight it deserves, it is all the more important to realize that the first term of the pair has not yet become an 'object of knowledge' in a true sense for literary criticism. 'The idea of'normal literature' - to paraphrase another Annales expression - has no place in criticism.  The result is that, at present, our knowledge of literary history closely resembles the maps of Africa of a century and a half ago: the coastal strips are familiar but an entire continent is unknown. Dazzled by the great estuaries of mythical rivers, when it comes to pinpointing the source we still trust too often to bizarre hypotheses or even to legends.

Faced with an unknown continent, one does not of course know beforehand whether it is going to be worth exploring. I can only say that each time I have studied 'low' genres, 'mass literature' (and despite having done it in a way I no longer find satisfactory: looking for their laws of operation in a single work I thought was exemplary - Dracula, The Paul Street Boys, the Sherlock Holmes cycle - and not in a broader and more systematic corpus of 'middle-range' products) I have always ended up finding meanings that were in no sense 'predictable' or'banal'. Very often, in fact, they were different or even antithetical to what one generally supposes at first sight.

Mass literature is not the undifferentiated and meaningless expanse most critics - still - say it is. It holds many surprises,
and not just because of the meanings within it, but also because of the light it sheds on works of a different kind. The rhetoric of the detective story enables us to understand better the formal and cultural problematic on which the narrative solutions of Joseph Conrad (which are opposed to those of the detective story) depend. Reading Baudelaire in the light of Bram Stoker, one finds that the function of the oxymoron takes on unexpected connotations.  In the essays on mass literature collected here, unfortunately, this aspect of the question is insufficiently developed. Only a few years ago, to write about Dracula meant being taken for an eccentric loafer, and one's main worry was to prove that one's work was legitimate:  'You see:  Dracula is part of literary history too.'  To wonder whether the study of Stoker might contribute towards changing the contours of 'great' literature was really going a bit too far.  But I am convinced now that htis is a path to pursue, and that it will perhaps allow us to reconstruct the literary system of the past with great theoretical precision and historical fidelity.

[ . . . ]

So a history of literature able to rewrite itself as a sociology of symbolic forms, a history of cultural conventions, should perhaps finally find a role and a dignity in the context of a total history of society. As is always the case, this would solve some problems and create others, starting with that raised by expressions like 'total history' or 'social history': concepts too broad to regulate any given piece of research. It is impossible to deny that human society is a multifarious, complex, overdetermined whole; but the theoretical difficulty obviously lies in trying to establish the hierarchy of different historical factors. The solution to this problem is, in turn, broadly an historical, empirical one. In an essentially agrarian society, climatic changes will have a far greater importance than in a basically industrial one. If the majority of the population is illiterate, the written culture will oscillate between playing a wholly negligible part and having an overwhelming and traumatic function (as the printing of the Bible demonstrated). If, on the other hand, everyone is able to read, the written culture is unlikely to turn up such extreme effects, but in compensation it will become the regular and intimate accompaniment to every daily activity.  As historical periods change, then, the weight of the various institutions, their function, their position in the social structure change too. When, therefore, the historian of literary forms begins to look for those extra-literary phenomena which will help him (whether he knows it or not) orient and control his research, the only rule he can set himself is to assess each instance carefully. A few examples will help here too to clarify what I mean, and I hope they will show that the criterion of 'each instance' is not meant to encourage arbitrariness, but to subject it to the only kind of control possible in this context.

Let us take the knowledge of state structures and politico-juridical thought. This will be very helpful - and theoretically 'pertinent' - for analysing tragic form in the age of absolutism, but it will be a lot less so for studying comic form in the same period. In the eighteenth century it will remain important for analysing the 'satiric' form of the novel, and yet be almost totally irrelevant for analysing the 'realist' novel. Or again, a study of sexual prohibitions and certain dream symbols deriving from them can provide many suggestions about the literature of terror and practically nothing about detective fiction of the same decade. Conversely, the emotional reactions to the second industrial revolution will be pertinent to the analysis of science fiction, rather less so to that of detective fiction, and quite insignificant for the literature of terror.

Rather than multiply the examples, it will be useful to point out that the 'pertinence' of a historical factor or event to literary analysis does not of itself imply any judgement about its importance in the overall mechanism of history. The Second World War - to take a strident example - does not seem to have much usefulness for literary periodization or interpretation: this does not, obviously, make it a secondary episode or one without enormous explanatory power in other areas. The different institutions of history have uneven rhythms of development, and in this respect the primary task of criticism is to outline the evolution of its own area of analysis, even if this leads it to move away from or contradict periodizations operating elsewhere. The reconstruction of a unified historiographical map is a subsequent, and typically interdisciplinary, problem. But it can be successfully tackled only if one possesses knowledge corroborated against the specific criteria of each particular area.

A final point of specification, even if the scope of the argument makes it superfluous: an extra-literary phenomenon is never more or less important as a possible 'object' or 'content' of a text, but because of its impact on systems of evaluation and, therewith, on rhetorical strategies. The phenomenon of popularized science is not 'part' of detective fiction because the detective works 'scientifically' (which is true enough but banal). Rather, we can say (taking a greater risk) that 'science' enters crime fiction by way of a particular semiotic mechanism (the decipherment of clues) and a narrative function reserved for it alone (the final denouement). If we analyse these two rhetorical choices further (and increase the risk of being wrong even further) we can say that the decipherment of clues presupposes that 'science' is identified with an organicist ideology based on the 'common-sense' notion that differences in status cannot be altered; that the ending of the detective novel sketches an image of temporality where 'science', instead of being an activity which solicits some sort of 'progress', plays a drastically stabilizing role, guaranteeing the immutability of the given social order, or at least reducing its changes to a minimum.

With these observations, as was inevitable, the strictly historiographical issue has become mingled with the question of validity, or better perhaps 'testability', of critical interpretations. Albeit summarily, we must now ask in what ways hermeneutics and historiography interact, and what their respective spheres of validity are.

3. For a 'Falsifiable' Criticism

In principle, the criteria for testing literary interpretations should be the same as those already in use in every other scientific discipline. One should in other words demand of an interpretation that it is coherent, univocal and complete. And the test will consist in comparing it with data which - in the text or texts that constitute its object - appear contradictory or inexplicable in the light of the hypothesis itself. Nothing new here, one might say; and indeed this is nothing other than the elementary formulation of that principle of falsification used by all the empirical sciences, including, with a few additional problems, the historico-social sciences. All, that is, except twentieth-century literary criticism, whose methodological framework has for a long time rested on concepts like 'polysemy', 'ambiguity', 'openness', 'difference', all of which stress the non-univocal semantic character of the literary text. If a text is by definition non-univocal, even self-contradictory, then none of its elements can ever 'falsify' an interpretation. Because of the semantic peculiarities of the literary text, it is taken for granted from the outset that interpretive hypotheses will be negated and this state of affairs is accepted as unavoidable. But if the text has no falsificatory power, then any interpretation becomes legitimate, or, more exactly, none will ever be illegitimate. The rivalry between
different hypotheses, the pathos of refutation, the passion for discussion - the ideals that animate every scientific undertaking - lose all  foundation,  appear superfluous  and almost inconceivable.  Interpretations tend to become mutually 'incommensurable', they do not appear to have any 'problems' in common. The claim that one of them is superior to another sinks almost to the level of a judgement of taste, whose empirical foundation is felt as an unseemly and prolix pedantry.

I have exaggerated, but not all that much. So long as it continues to revolve around concepts such as 'ambiguity' and the like, criticism will always, inexorably, be pushed into multiplying, rather than reducing, the obstacles every social science encounters when it tries to give itself a testable foundation. And all for nothing! For Hecuba!, one feels inclined to add. For the point is not whether the literary use of language is particularly polysemic or not. It is. But this in no way makes it  impossible  to conduct  univocal and  potentially complete - and thus refutable - analyses. It only means that these analyses must approach the text not as if it were a vector pointing neatly in one direction, but as if it were a light-source radiating in several directions or a field of forces in relatively stable equilibrium. These are more complex objects than a simple arrow, but an empirical and testable analysis of them is entirely possible, on condition that one aims to analyse and describe them as structures. By this token, adding, subtracting or transforming the meaning of each of their elements will not longer be treated (as is normally the case these days) as an operation which is 'always legitimate' because of the weak logical connections instituted by the literary structure (which is therefore the promised land of all deconstructionist thinking). Rather, it will be treated as a legitimate act only if it contributes towards improving the total knowledge of the text, and thus towards strengthening these connections, those 'prohibitions' which, as an organized whole, it imposes on the interpreter.

The day criticism gives up the battle cry 'it is possible to interpret this element in the following way', to replace it with the much more prosaic 'the following interpretation is impossible for such and such a reason', it will have taken a huge step forward on the road of methodological solidity. This does not in the least mean giving up unpredictable or daring interpretations: as Popper observed, the value of a theory is in direct proportion to its improbability. It merely means subjecting this improbability to rigorous checks, since what is bizarre or outlandish is not always also true. Pecca fortiter, sed crede fortius is a good way of summing up the spirit of scientific research.

[ . . . ]

We now come to the portion of truth contained in the objection set out above. I feel slightly uneasy here, because I know that more than once I myself have been guilty of the error I am about to describe, which is this. A satisfactory level of rhetorical analysis is reached. The configuration obtained seems to refer unambiguously to a particular hierarchy of values. So one performs the conclusive welding-together of rhetoric and social history. Let us suppose that up till now the argument has been flawless. It is precisely at this point that one makes a mistake. One succumbs to the allure of the sweeping generalization and falls into what we could call the 'Zeitgeist fallacy'. Does the rhetoric of detective fiction imply a certain attitude towards science? Right then: 'the society of Conan Doyle's time', 'England in the eighteen nineties', 'the imperialist phase of capitalism' - whatever else one cares to invoke - all 'share that attitude'. In relation to this turn in the argument, the objections of the historian of mentalities obviously have falsificatory value. But only in relation to this. What becomes arbitrary when it is generalized may perfectly well not be so if it aims for a more restricted sphere of validity.

This universalizing immodesty, which follows literary historiography about like a shadow, has a secret cause which it is helpful to know because it points by contrast to a possible way out. The cause is named Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Few things have been so exhilarating for aesthetic studies - and so fatal to their empirical solidity - as Hegel's marriage of philosophy of history with idealist aesthetics. In the Aesthetics, every historical epoch has in essence one ideal content to 'express', and it gives 'sensible manifestation' to it through one artistic form. It was practically inevitable that - following the argument in reverse - once one had defined a rhetorical form one felt authorized to link it directly to the idea - single, solitary, resplendent - in which a whole epoch is supposedly summed up. Inevitable, and wrong - or at least, nearly always. Although from time to time moments of extraordinary intellectual and formal compactness occur, as a rule the opposite happens in history, and no system of values has ever been able to represent a Zeitgeist without being challenged by rival systems. Besides, if it were otherwise the whole of the present argument, from the opening lines onwards, would be totally absurd, because rhetoric should not even exist. Remember Kenneth Burke: the aim of rhetoric - promoting adherence to specific values - presupposes its opposite - division. All rhetorical forms aspire to become the 'Spirit of the Age', but their very plurality shows us that this term indicates an
aspiration rather than a reality, and should therefore be employed as a highly useful conceptual tool - but not as a fact.

Conversely, it is precisely a respect for the specificity of each individual form that seems to offer the best guarantee of restraint
in the historico-social links that criticism seeks to establish. The more one manages to differentiate a given form from 'rival' forms, the more social and ideological connections one will find are prohibited. The advantages of this both for historical concreteness and empirical testability are obvious. This brings us back to the situation outlined in the previous section. If the history of literature ever transforms itself into a history of rhetorical forms, the latter will in turn have to start from the realization that a form becomes more comprehensible and more interesting the more one grasps the conflict, or at least the difference, connecting it to the forms around it. And this should not be understood - as has in fact already started to happen - as a diachronic criterion: or at least not only, and not primarily. As well as grasping the succession of different and mutually hostile forms, literary history must aim at a synchronic periodization which is no longer 'summed up' in individual exemplary forms, but is set up for each period, through a kind of parallelogram of rhetorical forces, with its dominant, its imbalances, its conflicts and its division of tasks.

At this point the relations between the history of forms and the history of society will perhaps lose their uncertain and episodic
character, and that same heterogeneity of extra-literary references that has characterized (until now in a casual and untestable way) the activity of interpretation will appear as a necessary path to follow. The disparate and discontinuous nature of those references does not (necessarily) depend on the instability of the categories used by criticism, but on its search for concreteness. It has to draw on those aspects of social life which enable one to explain that specific  material  object  that  is  the  text  under  analysis. Heterogeneity of connections is in the nature of this work because it is in the nature of literature itself. Literature is perhaps the most omnivorous of social institutions, the most ductile in satisfying disparate social demands, the most ambitious in not recognizing limits to its own sphere of representation. One cannot ask that heterogeneity to disappear, but only (and it is no small request) to reflect faithfully the real diversity, in terms of their destination and function, of the texts under examination.

4. Literature, 'Consent'

This historical project lies almost entirely in the future. Who knows whether it will ever be carried out? Who knows whether it
is a reasonable project and not just a little personal utopia (which, moreover, I am still a long way from having begun to put into practice)? Whatever the case, it is idle to speculate too much on the best of all possible criticisms. Let us try instead to complete the argument by going back to a number of characteristics of what we call 'literature' which justify that project. We need in other words to isolate those elements of that 'real object', literature, which suggest that it becomes an 'object of knowledge' according to the criteria outlined so far.

Picking up the points raised in the first section, let us say that the substantial function of literature is to secure consent. To make individuals feel 'at ease' in the world they happen to live in, to reconcile them in a pleasant and imperceptible way to its prevailing cultural norms. This is the basic hypothesis. To corroborate it, however, it will be necessary to try it out on the one hand with a literary phenomenon - tragedy - that seems to indicate the exact opposite, and on the other with the number of particularly significant articulations of modern aesthetic and critical thought.

In one of the essays that follow I have tried to show that Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy contributed, more radically
than any other cultural phenomenon of the same period, to discrediting the values of absolute monarchy, thereby paving the way, with wholly destructive means, for the English revolution of the seventeenth century. What I have just claimed about literature as consent and conciliation seems to be completely negated. And in fact it is, because that hypothesis was proposed in a historically indeterminate form, whereas its validity should be restricted to western capitalist society. This society is separated from the age of tragedy - the age of absolutism - by a historical rupture that radically altered two decisive aspects of literary, and more generally artistic, activity. First, tragedy belongs to a world that does not yet recognize the inevitability of permanent conflict between opposing and immitigable interests or values, and therefore does not feel any need to confront the problem of reconciling them. And second - there is, as we shall see, a link between the two - the age in which tragedy flourished did not recognize aesthetic activity as having any autonomy, but believed it should always cooperate directly, immediately, in moral or cognitive purposes.

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century tragedy thus belongs to a world which the dominant ideology still wants to present as an
organism, where between the various social classes there is a functional difference but not a conflict of interests. It is a world that still thinks of itself as an organic whole, but is ceasing - clamorously - to be so. Tragedy springs from this unrepeatable historical conjuncture. Its elementary structure always consists in showing how two values that should be in a relationship of dominance and subordination suddenly, mysteriously (the mystery of Iago, of the witches in Macbeth, of passion in Phedre) become autonomous and take on equal violence. As all Shakespeare's and Racine's tragic heroes discover to their consternation, the traditional 'sovereignty' of reason, or morality, over the other human faculties suddenly and irreversibly becomes impossible.

It is a situation we can understand only if we are able to tear ourselves away from the presuppositions of our own culture. Its 'tragic' quality does not lie (as would now be the case for us) in the fact that the story eventually leads to the sacrifice of one of the two values in conflict, so that the surviving value too is darkened by the shadow of mourning. This does happen, of course, yet it is not here, in the 'ending', that the tragedy shows itself for what it is, but in its presuppositions: in the fact that it has been possible to imagine, and put into words, an irreconcilable conflict. This preliminary rhetorical choice - this basic situation, which the tragic dramatist never bothers to 'motivate', but only expound with the utmost clarity - breaks organicist unity for ever, and is felt as something painful, incomprehensible, 'tragic', precisely because organicism is still felt to be the only possible form of thought.

We can invert the formula used above, and say that tragedy presents a world which is ceasing to be organic, but which is still
only able to think of itself as organic. It is the paradoxical spirit of this literary form, which always leaves us, as Goethe observed, 'with troubled minds', ill at ease, uncertain. It was for this reason an unrivalled instrument of criticism and dissent. But an unrepeatable one: once the organicist ideology disappeared, so did the formal possibility of its tragic negation.

[ . . . ]

Nineteenth-century literature is pervaded by this new perception of the conflictual nature of society. Indeed it seems that its
great historical legacy consists in indicating how - in a civilization irreparably divided between hostile interests and values - the concept of 'consent' itself has to undergo a profound transformation.  It can no longer consist in the drastic and acknowledged triumph of one system of values over all the others. It must assume a more ductile and precarious form: no longer that of full dialectical synthesis but the more 'dubious' one of compromise. (27)

Compromise is the great theme of 'realist' narrative fiction and perhaps, even more significantly, the main rhetorical criterion of
that still more enigmatic phenomenon, the 'modern lyric'. If one had to characterize the latter in one word, the term that would
spring to mind is 'obscurity'. And this obscurity - which to become such is willing to risk unintelligibility - is due largely to the constraining and ineluctable attempt to make semantic 'compromises' between what have become totally heterogeneous and contradictory elements. Baudelaire's oxymoron is still the figure that best exemplifies and sums up this operation. Paul Ricoeur has written: '. . . as a man of desires I go forth in disguise - larvatus prodeo. By the same token language itself is from the outset and for the most part distorted: it means something other than what it says, it has a double meaning, it is equivocal. The dream and its analogues are thus set within a region of language that presents itself as the locus of complex significations where another meaning is both given and hidden in an immediate meaning. Let us call this region of double meaning "symbol". . .'.(28)

Ricoeur's words introduce the last turn to be taken here. They do not refer to the modern lyric and literary hermeneutics but to
the dream and psychoanalysis. And indeed, if one wants to see in literature the cultural activity delegated to secure consent by
effecting 'adjustments' between conflicting values, one cannot dispense with at least a summary discussion of certain aspects of
Freudian thinking.

Freud, as is well known, saw in art the most successful form of 'compensation' for those impulses which civilization compels the individual to sacrifice.(29)  At the root of aesthetic activity one therefore finds the 'return of the repressed'. But in order for the repressed psychical contents to reoccupy the stage, they must put on a 'mask', or more exactly take on a 'form' different from their original, in consequence of the conflict with a psychical force which acts in the opposite direction: '. . . the model of Freudian negation is a formal one . . . a semiotic compromise-formation which allows one to say yes and no to anything simultaneously . . . perverse desire could not [be] acceptable as content in the literary work without the latter's also accepting the formal model capable of filtering it.'(30)  This Freudian view contains a number of elements which are absolutely essential to interpretative activity: the image of the text as a field of conflict between psychical and cultural forces; the idea that these forces are differently placed in relation to our self-awareness (that is, they are more or less 'unconscious'); the insistence that the conflict between them can be understood only if its specific rhetorical formalizations are analysed; the explanation of the surprising and often, indeed, 'obscure' quality of these formalizations, which is traced back to the heterogeneous and mutually hostile nature of the forces reaching a compromise within them.

[ . . . ]

From the reality principle to the doxa, and thence to literature, which is - however paradoxical it may seem - one of the dearest manifestations of the reality principle. Literature is the 'middle term' par excellence, and its 'educational', 'realistic' function con-
sists precisely in training us without our being aware of it for an unending task of mediation and conciliation. Literature (which,
like the reality principle and the doxa, prospers in periods of social stability and suddenly appears 'useless' or'impossible' during wars and revolutions) indicates how deeply rooted is our desire to make the 'adjustment' to the existing order coincide with some idea of 'happiness'. It makes us realize that 'consent' - feeling that we 'want' to do what we 'have' to do - can be one of the highest aspirations of the individual psyche. It tells us, in other words, that in the absence of great battles (and therefore - the point cannot be suppressed - in the absence of what could be great tragedies) it is inevitable that from time to time one will try to convince oneself that this is really the best of all possible worlds.

If so undeconstructive and unliberating a notion of literature still seems disagreeable, or unconvincing, I can only draw on an image that has often come back to me in the course of this study. It is a bas-relief of an ancient Greek tomb in the British Museum. It shows a harpy - the upper half of its body a woman, the lower a bird of prey - carrying off a small human body: according to the experts, the soul of the deceased. Below, the harpy is clutching the soul tight in its claws, but higher up her Greek arms are holding her in an attentive and tender embrace. The soul is doing nothing to get out of the harpy's clutch. It seems calm, relaxed even. It probably does not like being dead: if it did there would be no need for harpies. But at the same time the soul must know that there is no escape from the grip of the claws. For this reason it does not lower its gaze, but rests its head trustingly on the harpy's arms.  Precisely because there is no escape it prefers to delude itself about the affectionate, almost maternal nature of the creature dragging it away with her in flight.

Can we blame it?


1.  Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric ofMotives, New York 1950, p. 23.

2.  Giulio Preti, Retorica e logica, Turin 1968, pp. 157 and 163-4.

3. Antoine Arnaud and Pierre Nicole, La logique ou I'art de penser, 1662-83, third part, chapter 20.

4. Preti, pp. 150-1. On the epideictic genre precursor of 'literature' see also Heinrich Lausberg, Elemente der lirerarisehen Rhetorik, Munich 1949, paragraphs 14-16: 'The discourse of re-use is a speech held in typical situations (solemn, celebratory) ... Every society of a certain strength and intensity has three discourses of re-use, which are social instruments for the conscious maintenance of a full and continuous social order ... speeches established in order to evoke, repeatably, socially important acts of collective consciousness. These texts correspond to what, in societies with a freer social order, presents itself as "literature" and "poetry".' On the steadily strengthening connection between rhetoric and litera-
ture see also Vasile Florescu, La retorica nel suo sviluppo storico, Bologna 1971.

5. Arnaud and Nicole, first part, chapter 14. See also Michel Le Guern, Semantique de la metaphore et de la metonymie, Paris 1973, p. 75: 'Metaphor ... is one of the most effective ways of conveying an emotion. Nearly all metaphors express a value judgement because the associated image they introduce arouses an affective reaction ...The most common function of metaphor is to express a sentiment which it wants one to share: it is here that its most important motive is to be

6. Max Black, Models and Metaphors, Ithaca 1962, pp. 39-40.

7. Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, La nouvelle rhetorique. Traite de I'argumentation, Paris 1958, p. 543.

8. Lausberg, paragraph 2.

9. Jacques Le Goff,'Les mentalites: une histoire ambigue', in Jacques Le Goff and Pierre Nora, eds., Faire de I'histoire, Paris 1974, pp.

10. See above all the essays 'Semantik der kiihnen Metapher', Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrifi fur Literaturwissenschafi and Geidesgeschichte, no. 3, 1963, and 'Semantik der Metapher', Folia Linguistica, no. 1, 1967.

11. 'Der Begriff des Kunstwollens', Zeitschrift fur Asthetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschafi, XIV (1920), 4, p. 339. The italics are mine.

12. Panofsky in fact talks here about a 'conflict ... between a forming powerand a material to be overcome', a formula which does not seem to allude to a contrast between different forms but to the more usual dialectic of form and content. Elsewhere, however, he makes it clear that the form-content opposition has no historical relevance whatsoever: 'the pair of concepts "form-content" does not designate in the least, as do the other two ["objectivistic-subjectivistic." and "realistic-idealistic"], an opposition between two principles of figuration which can define a stylistic difference between diverse phenomena, but rather the limits of two spheres which are [logically] distinguished within one and the same artistic phenomenon' ('Uber das Verhaltnis der Kunstgeschichte zur Kunsttheorie', Zeitschrift fur Asthetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, XVIII, 1925, note 19).

17. Jean Starobinski, 1789. Les emblemes de la rairon, Paris 1973, p. 5.

27. 'Compromise' does not of course mean an equally advantageous (or disadvantageous) deal for all the parties involved. As I try to explain in 'Kindergarten', it is perfectly possible for it to involve agonizing losses and grave imbalances. Its distinctive function is not to 'make everybody happy' but, precisely, to 'compromise': to create a broad area with uncertain boundaries where polarized values come into contact, cohabit, become hard to recognize and disentangle. Needless to add, this is a supremely anti-tragic configuration.

28. Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, New Haven and London 1970, p. 7.

29. 'Art offers substitute satisfactions for the oldest and still most deeply felt cultural renunciations, and for that reason it serves as nothing else to reconcile a man to the sacrifices he has made on behalf of civilization.' ('The Future of an Illusion', 1927, in Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, London 1953-74, volume XXI, p. 14). Similarly, two years later, Freud defines art as 'illusions, which are recognized as such ... expressly exempted from the demands of reality-testing and ... set apart for the purpose of fulfilling wishes which were difficult to carry out ... Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization could not do without it ... Psychoanalysis, unfortunately, has scarcely anything to say about beauty either. All that seems certain is its derivation from the field of sexual feeling. The love of
beauty seems a perfect example of an impulse inhibited in its aim.' ('Civilization and its Discontents', 1930, ibid., pp. 80, 82, 83).

30. Francesco Orlando, Toward a Freudian Theory of Literature, Baltimore/London 1978, p. 140.