- Literary Forms of Life
If something distressing happens to me, and I'm asked to explain how I am, I may go silent. This fact may have something to do with my psychology, or with the slenderness of my powers of expression. But it may be, too, that something has come undone for me, between my world, my language, and myself. I feel something powerful in this assessment. I recognize myself in its metaphors. I may even simplify it into a familiar saying, attempting to express my pain and uncertainty: "I feel undone." Both critically and colloquially, I've begun to speak a poem of sorts, and to recast myself into the world with language. This last is also expressive. At times, words give shape to what feels chaotic to me and gives to my life a form I can hold on to.
In such small, often ordinary moves toward expression lies a deep and unsettling puzzle, both about language and about the kind of thing that I am: What am I such that I can be—perhaps must be—"shaped," "given form," "expressed," "recast," back into my own life? This question still uses metaphors, but what it suggests is compelling: the relationship between myself, my language, and my world is not a clear one. Concerned with literary expressions of wartime trauma, Paul Fussell offers this notable description of his work in The Great War and Modern Memory: "I have focused on places and situations where literary tradition and real life notably transect, and in doing so I have tried to understand something of the simultaneous and reciprocal process by which life feeds materials to literature while literature returns the favor by conferring forms upon life" (p. ix).1 Fussell goes on to describe the poetic forms that shaped the images, tones, and moral tenor of trench warfare within a wider public consciousness. Fussell's double sense of form—he means both the way literature is written and what it does to life—carries the sense that I described above of feeling "recast" into the world. [End Page 247]
However, Fussell does not simply assume that literary forms can give form to life; he rather wants to recount and examine the redescriptions that give that relationship meaning. There is a wisdom in this. The relationship between literary forms and life is not singular, stable, or even overt. It is as changeable as literary tradition itself. This may simply be "the state of things," but it may also have something to do with my intimate connection to both language and the world. I would like to know if there is something meaningful in this idea, and will explore its potentials in what follows. Can literary forms "[confer] forms upon life"? I will focus my inquiry with variations on this question, and begin by considering a strain of literary criticism that raises both claims and doubts about the potentials of literary form. A long tradition of criticism certainly suggests that literary forms can give form to life. In the poetry of literature, however, it becomes clear that what's at stake in asking after the power of literary form are our own human meanings.
What does it mean for a literary form to be expressive of life or a life? Georg Lukács's historical claims about the consequences and potentials of the novel form in The Theory of the Novel perhaps come to mind. In his characteristically bold account, literary form is active; form acts, mirrors, does.2 The Theory of the Novel is itself an attempt to give form to what was initially "scarcely articulate" (p. 11) for Lukács: his passionate rejection of all support, acclaim, and political fascination for the First World War. That literary forms can in turn give "form" to life or otherwise capture human passions, actions, biographies, social structures, even consciousness, is a bedrock of literary critical accounts concerned with representation. Studies on mimesis, the "reality effect," metonymy, analogy, even poetic dramatization, offer a variety of critical redescriptions of literature as a means of distinguishing the ways in which literary forms reveal, dialectically expose (and so on), human life.
One need only look...