Hans Robert Jauss, “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory”

1970

Jauss’ essay begins with a description of the originally philological discipline of literary history in decline. It has become nothing but skeletal chronology. The question lies in this: if history cannot be regarded from “an end,” from a teleological point, how might they be articulated coherently? 7 Literary historians thus cordoned off periods of time, distinguishable not only from the critic’s own, but from surrounding periods, creating mini-end, mini-teleologies within 7. This resulted in disembodied classics severed from historical context 9.

Jauss summarizes the Marxist position (in a way that actually seems contrary to Adorno’s concept of aesthetics): “literature [and art] can no longer maintain the ‘appearance of its independence’ when one has realized that its production presupposes the material production and social praxis of human beings, that even artistic production is a part of the ‘real life process’ of the appropriation of nature… only when this ‘active life process’ is represented ‘does history stop being a collection of dead facts'” 10. Yet Marxist critics like Lukacs and Brecht have thematized  periods, genres, and history in their consideration of the realist novel’s issues of imitation and reflection (recall Lukacs calling for less description, more action) 10.

“Literature, in the fullness of its forms, allows itself to be referred back only in part and not in any exact manner to concrete conditions of the economic process” 12. Lukacs (who loves Balzac and Tolstoy, not Zola) and others do not answer the question “How can the art of a distant past survive the annihilation of its socioeconomic basis, if one denies with Lukacs any independence to the artistic form and thus also cannot explain the ongoing influence of the work of art as a profess formative of history?” 13. And how can art “take a position” if it is so defined by its historicity and material constraints? 14. The solution may be in Karl Kosik’s claim that “Each work of art has a doubled character within an indivisible unity… the expression of reality… also forms the reality that exists… precisely only in the work” 14. Thus the historical essence of the work is as reflection, but also essence and influence 15.

Jauss turns to the Formalists, who grasped this earlier, in his view. Formalism, in using the opposition of poetic and practical language as the bar with which to measure art, detaches literature from history to treat the aesthetic object independently. 16. In defamiliarization, perception is an end in itself, and ultimately the Formalists confront history by considering the relationship of artworks to one another: “the literariness of literature is conditioned not only synchronically by the opposition between poetic and practical language, but also diachronically by the opposition to the givens of the genre and the preceding form of the literary series” 17. In considering not the classical teleology but the dialectical and dynamic evolution of form (the “origin, canonization, and decay of genres”) Formalism actually did engage in a historical project 17.

Out of these two schools Jauss argues that if literary evolution exists in historical change and pragmatic history can be linked or narrativized as process, then literature and history must be relatable without violating literature as art, or making it into mere mimesis or political commentary 18. Both schools have too long ignored the “reader, listener and spectator… the audience” in favor of production (Marxism)  and presentation (Formalism) 18. Both assume an ideal reader educated to read according to specific imperatives who will spontaneously arrive at a particular reading 19.

“The perspective of the aesthetics of reception  mediates between passive reception and active understanding, experience formative of norms, and new production. If the history of literature is viewed in this way within the horizon of a dialogue between work and audience that forms a continuity, the opposition between its aesthetic and its historical aspects is also continually mediated. Thus the thread from the past appearance to the present experience of literature, which historicism had cut, is tied back together” 19.

Jauss makes the canon like the act of reading a novel – grasping and accumulating new facts (faceting),a nd then moves on to his seven theses on aesthetics of reception:

1: The removal of the prejudices of historical objectivism and the grounding of the traditional aesthetics of production and representation in an aesthetics of reception and influence 20.

2. The analysis of the literary experience of the reader avoids the threatening pitfalls of psychology if it describes the reception and the influence of a work within the objectifiable system of expectations that arises for each work in the historical moment of its appearance.. a preunderstanding of the genre… the opposition between poetic and practical language 22 (this assumes an ideal reader too, doesn’t it?).

3. The work can be evaluated along a “horizon of expectations” as to whether it breaks with form, surprises, “changes horizons” in the viewer, offers  a new “level of consciousness,” etc. for its initial audience 25

4. The initial response vs a “horizon of expectations” cures the “spirit of the age” argument and places the text in the history of its reception, questioning any stable interpretation of it 28.

5. This is not only about looking at the unfolding historical understanding of a work, but situating it among other works in a literary series (sounds like Eliot’s argument that the critic both forms and is formed by literary history and the canon) 30.

6. Linguistics, which has provided us with the “methodological interrelation of diachronic and synchronic analysis,” allows us to “overcome the diachronic perspective” by taking “a synchronic cross-section of a moment in the development, to arrange the heterogenous multiplicity of contemporaneous works in equivalent, opposing, and hierarchical structures… to discover an overarching system of relationships in the literature of a historical moment” 36. Sandwiched diachronically between other synchronic segments this could “articulate historically the change in literary structures in epoch-making moments” 36.

7. Literary history must also be seen as its own ‘special history’: “this relationship [to history] does not end with the fact that a typified, idealized, satiric, or utopian image of social existence can be found in the literature of all times… the social function of literature manifests itself… only where the literary experience of the reader enters into the horizon of expectations of his lived praxis… and also has an effect on his social behavior” 39.

How new aesthetic form can instantiate moral change can be seen, for Jauss, in the example of the Madame Bovary trial. The novel’s ‘uninvolved’ narrator and free indirect discourse that “bring[s] forth a mostly inward discourse of the represented character without the signals of direct discourse… or indirect discourse… with the effect that the reader himself has to decide whether he should take the sentence for a true declaration or understand it as an opinion characteristic of this character” 42.

“The consternating effect of the formal innovations of Flaubert’s narrative style became evident in the trial: the impersonal form of narration not only compelled his readers to perceive things differently – ‘photographically exact,’ according to the judgment of the time – but at the same time thrust them into an alienating uncertainty of judgment… [no longer] the moral judgment of the represented characters that is always unequivocal and confirmed in the description – the novel was able to radicalize or to raise new questions of lived praxis” 43.

A literary work “with an unfamiliar aesthetic form can break through the expectations of its readers and at the same time confront them with a question, the solution to which remains lacking for them in the religiously or officially sanctioned morals” 44. Schiller already observed this about the theatre, but champions the “opaque reality” of new forms such as the noveau roman, where the reader is outside the situation, uninitiated, and must piece together the reality himself. In this sense, the greatest literature, for Jauss, is that which is not fixated on the representational 45.

Notes on Nabokov and Jauss from 2010:

Pale Fire also raises a lot of fascinating questions about canonization, because mixed reviews on a famous author’s new novel have kind of turned in the last ten years into Pale Fire being regarded as one of Nabokov’s really great works, up there with Lolita. Jauss 15 – The work is echoed in work-mankind interaction – spirals out the smaller, individualized concept of Iser into a more social realm, acknowledging the importance of the academy – in this case Brian Boyd – to the changing reception of a text over time. Jauss 35 – Some works hard for public at first, must mature over time through – you guessed it – rereadings, though he means this on a larger cultural front, perhaps. 43 – In Flaubert, Jauss claims, it is the very “consternating effects” of Flaubert’s style that really  make the work last – not to oversimplify his idea, but the more frustrating the work may seem, the more it may later yield.

What was for contemporary readers stylistic virtuoso – sometimes lovely, sometimes hollow, sometimes exciting, sometimes frustrating, becomes in Pale Fire something much more later on – it becomes regarded as a kind of blueprint for later, experimental forms of what we might now call postmodern literature. In Flaubert, we cannot stigmatize Emma because of the free indirect discourse, Jauss claims; in Pale Fire we cannot seem to hate Kinbote, either, largely because his sad, mad tale is so beautifully woven up against John Shade’s poem, and this disorienting, innovative form takes our guard down, so that as we try to craft a gestalt to order this unfamiliar “novel,” the same thing happens as with Madame Bovary – we identify with the characters more closely because we create them differently than we would in a novelistic form with which we feel very familiar.44 – New form can break through expectations of reader and confront with ? for which no sanctioned answer is available – Lo. 44 – I think Nabokov would love that the solution is the problem in RR theory – for Jauss, Nonrepresentational art seems to win out (and what is Nab but this!) and to liberate readers from prior patterns, practices and expectations.

Indeed, for the very complex and formally bizarre Pale Fire, this changed reception since the sixties is largely due to the new appreciation for the poem by Brian Boyd as a work of literature in itself, thought Boyd himself has changed his mind three times over the last twenty-five years or so about what actually happens in the book, let alone how to interpret it. This is because, in essence, Boyd is following Nabokov’s instructions by constantly revising his reading as he holds the text in his mind as a whole and reads again in an enactment of what I guess is ReReader ReResponse Theory.

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