Doing Literature without Thinking: Paralogical Devices and the Literary Field
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Doing Literature without Thinking:
Paralogical Devices and the Literary Field

As can be learned from Władysław Tatarkiewicz’s A History of Six Ideas (12–15, 21–23, 50, 56–57, 244–45), since antiquity, Western literary art has on the one hand been understood as a skill (téchne, ars) that, with the masterly use of the given stock of themes and forms, gives rise to works appropriate to the purpose and the established conventions, while on the other hand, it has been perceived as the work of inspired obsession (manía, furor poeticus), consciously replacing skill with a string of ideas of a transcendental origin. Until the renaissance, the conceptual range of the Greek word téchne and its Latin counterpart ars was both broader and narrower than that suggested in the West by the modern notion of art. Setting in since the mid-eighteenth century, the modern idea of art united literature with visual arts, music, and theater by providing them with common ideological grounds (i.e., the aesthetic concept of beauty), while excluding handicrafts and sciences from its proper domain, which appeared to be gaining autonomy from the rest of society. Referring to the skills derived from a masterly knowledge of the rules deemed necessary for producing a work of art or performing a certain art practice, the pre-modern notion of ars embraced not only music, theater, dance, or architecture but also different handicrafts and sciences. On the other hand, however, poetry was for millennia largely excluded from ars because it was not regarded as a rational, practical, goal-oriented, and imitative skill but rather as poíesis, that is, the production of new entities, as well as a kind of prophecy cognate with philosophical thinking or religious experience.

Tatarkiewicz reiterates his observation that the ancient Greeks regarded poets as divinely inspired prophets and distinguished poetry from the imitative routines of the arts because it represented a higher type of knowledge, moral education, and metaphysical insight, while also embodying the danger of fascinating audiences with mere simulacra (83–85). In his Phaedrus, for instance, Plato wrote that poetry originates [End Page 54] from a sublime frenzy of those possessed by the Muses: “But he who without the divine madness comes to the doors of the Muses, confident that he will be a good poet by art, meets with no success, and the poetry of the sane man vanishes into nothingness before that of the inspired madmen” (Phaedrus 245a).1 However, Tatarkiewicz cautions not to neglect a contrary understanding of literature. Commenting on Plato, he points out: “There is poetry which springs from a poetical frenzy (manía), and poetry composed by literary skill (téchne)” (99). Indeed, in The Republic, Plato also equates poetry with the mimetic principle of the visual arts. Further, Aristotle’s Poetics sets down the rules for composing tragedies as a high genre of poetic art; and last but not least, the Greeks generally comprehended poetry along incommensurable modes: from the point of view of content, poetry was supposed to transcend other arts as a medium of divine inspiration beyond the poet’s control, whereas with regard to its observable form, the poetic verse demanded metrical skills, obeisance to rules, and the imitation of works embodying formal and linguistic perfection (Tatarkiewicz 15, 85–86, 98).

The enduring approach to poetry as an art that can, to a certain degree, be learned and skillfully imitated may be understood as a result of its institutionalization, which was achieved by the teaching of grammar, rhetoric, and poetics from the antiquity to classical modernity (see, e.g. Juvan, History 49–56). Compared to the artistic consciousness of the moderns, the Greeks lacked notions of the aesthetic experience, artistic creativity, and originality.2 As early as the Hellenistic period, poetry conceived as approximate to art was valued for the first time as a rule-free, personalized, and individual spiritual work of imagination (phantasía) that may legitimately produce innovation, but it was only in early modernity that poetry finally joined other arts in the realm of “beauty.” In the Italian renaissance, “free creative work again advanced to the fore, leaving canons and traditions...


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