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  • Morality, Historical Narrative, and Problems in New Formalism
  • Peter Sinnott Jr.


In a recent article, "Narrative Accidents and Literary Miracles," Evan Horowitz argues that there is "a widespread, if not fundamental, incommensurability between the historical and the aesthetic, which any rigorous critical enterprise needs to carefully accommodate."1 His point is that any critical approach to literature that emphasizes history, i.e., historical criticism, cultural studies, and Marxist criticism, cannot account for what is truly "literary" in literature. He supports his claim that the aesthetic and the historical are incommensurable by demonstrating how history is "suffused with accidents," while literary narrative is a product of careful design by the author ("NALM," p. 77). As I see it, Horowitz's argument has two components. First, he makes a philosophical claim about the nature of history and the nature of the aesthetic. Second, he attempts to show that the validity of this philosophical claim demonstrates the validity of his statement concerning the professional practice of literary scholars.

I argue that Horowitz's distinction between history and the aesthetic rests on a gross misunderstanding of the nature of historical events as well as a misunderstanding of historically oriented criticism. More than a litany of accidents, historical representations share the structure of literary narrative and therefore have common ground with aesthetic representation. This common ground is not indicative of how historical [End Page 257] discourse is warped by literary narrative or the aesthetic. Rather, the narrative dimension of historical representations helps us to understand and deal with events in our lives, whether these events are happenstance or not. In short, narrative design is a mental process we use to understand the events of everyday life. If we accept this premise, it is difficult to accept Horowitz's claim that history and the aesthetic, or narrative at least, are incommensurable.

My argument does not only concern the philosophical question of how aesthetics relates to history; I also find problematic the trend in new formalist criticism that Horowitz's article represents. Certain strains of new formalism attempt to narrow the disciplinary field and minimize or exclude completely the influences of other disciplines, especially philosophy and history. In this way new formalism has not only exhibited a tendency to reject certain practices within literary studies but has also put forth arguments that go against the very nature of interdisciplinary work. This rejection often occurs in the name of reestablishing a concrete object of study that can only be understood through the privileged domain of formal analysis, and this privileged domain can only be reestablished fully by excluding other critical practices. Horowitz argues, in his essay, for the presence of a "resistant aesthetic core" with a clearly definable quality—"being accident free" ("NALM," p. 72). With this objective established, literary studies can once again concentrate upon the aesthetic object that had been obscured by too much focus on historical context.

Horowitz's argument is symptomatic of a reductive strain in new formalism, which only establishes an aesthetic object by ignoring or reducing to caricature arguments rooted in other disciplines. For instance, Horowitz sums up the claims of historically oriented criticism through vague assertions like "history shapes literature," without explaining what that means in any specific fashion, failing in his own call for a rigorous critical enterprise. Even arguments against the norms and claims of other critical orientations and disciplines should be inclusive to the point that they address those claims in an open and scrupulous fashion.

Horowitz does admit that history and literature communicate, if not as disciplines, then as realms of life, but once history passes through the process of literary creation it is something other than history. In this attempt to establish a definite object for literary studies to examine, a narrowing of a disciplinary field occurs that is at odds with the ideal of interdisciplinary studies. I will return to this point at the end of this article, but for now, I want to argue that at the heart of interdisciplinary [End Page 258] studies is an ability to look with an open mind at how scholars from another discipline view the same object. A rigorous and careful examination in this light often means...


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