Models, gradations, experiments

by Edward Balcerzan (Author)
©2016 Monographs 363 Pages


The deepest crises cannot destroy the universal model of literariness. It maintains its appeal for participants in literary communication as a «contradictory» model. This thought recurs in many epochs. Literariness involves suspending the formal or logical norms of contradiction (lex contraditionis). In everyday speech, it is not permissible for «A» to simultaneously be «not-A»; in literary structures this is the norm. This is both in the ideas, and in the tensions between the artificiality and naturalness of speech, the structure and the chaos of the plot, experimentation and revitalization of tradition, objective observation and a biased vision of the world, its visibility and invisibility, expressibility and inexpressibility, and a realistic and an imaginative focus. Executions of this model are gradative.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Point of Departure: Literary Impulses
  • The Formal/Linguistic Impulse
  • The Emotional Impulse
  • The Ideological Impulse
  • A Digression on (Literary Theory) Metaphors
  • The Academic Impulse
  • Chapter 1: The Structures of Literariness
  • The “Contradictory” Conception of Literariness: A Universal Model
  • Breakdowns and Communicative Energies
  • Between the Expressible and the Inexpressible
  • Inexpressible or Unexpressed?
  • Between the Visible and the Invisible
  • Bolesław Leśmian’s “Moonlight Poem”
  • Between Ontology and Poetics
  • The Ontology of a “Tectonic” Work
  • The Ontology of the “Model of the World”
  • Chapter 2: Paradigms of Literariness
  • Literature as a Paradigm
  • Discernible Literature
  • Lexicographical Crossroads
  • The Term “Literature” in a Historical Kaleidoscope
  • The Literature of Literary Critics
  • The Limited Imagination
  • The Limits of Literature, the Limits of History, the Limits of Limits
  • The Communication Paradigm of Literature
  • Chapter 3: Literariness in the Spacetimes of Its Reception
  • Originary Literariness
  • The Sets of (Auto-)Reception
  • Literature from Literature, and from Elsewhere
  • Literature in Statu Nascendi
  • The Literary Auto-communication Set in Authors’ Poetics and in Research Specializations
  • Chapter 4: Metaphors, Interpretations, Great Silva Rerums
  • Metaphor and Interpretation
  • An Example: Stanisław Grochowiak’s Roses
  • Abducted by the Figurative
  • The Literariness of Interpretation
  • The Literary Whole from a Gradated Perspective
  • Lesser and Greater Silvae Rerum
  • A Great Interpretation of the Great Silva Rerum
  • The Example of the Mickiewicz Tradition
  • The First Axiological Aim, or, Greatness and Smallness
  • The Second Axiological Aim, or, Timeliness and Historicity
  • Communicative Aims, or, the Certainty and Uncertainty of Meaning
  • The Great Interpretation of the Krakow Avant Garde
  • A Scattered Avant Garde
  • The First Circle: The Scattering of the Nomenclature
  • The Second Circle: The Scattering of Distinguishing Features
  • The Third Circle: The Scattering of Spacetime
  • Chapter 5: The Return of Structuralism
  • (Methodological) Turns, Retreats, and Returns
  • The Anti-Structuralist Turn
  • The Debate on Evaluation
  • Axiological Constraints
  • Established Norms in Research
  • The Retreat from Literature
  • A Garden of Private Delights, or New Institutionalism?
  • Deconstruction? More Like an Experiment
  • A Place in History
  • The Lighting of Structuralism
  • Chapter 6: Paraliterature: The Third Sphere, Which Is Really the First
  • Another Debate: On Dichotomies
  • Breaking the Dichotomies
  • Are the Limits or Spheres of Speech Fully Sovereign?
  • Paraliterature and Speech Specializations
  • A Sample of Paraliterature: The World in a Letter
  • Chapter 7: Doubles and Reflections of Literariness in the Semiotic Universe
  • The Literariness of Space
  • Time Speaks in Space, Space Speaks in Time
  • Space, Genres, Rules of Coherence
  • Toward a Multimedia Genology
  • Toward a Multimedia Theory of Genre
  • Toward a Multimedia Theory of Types
  • Index

← 8 | 9 →

Point of Departure: Literary Impulses

Immediately after joining the Project I began studying linguistics, because it seemed essential. I swiftly fell into a profound astonishment, as I saw that, when it came to the originary and most fundamental concepts, there was nary a trace of agreement in this allegedly exact, this reportedly mathematical and physicalistic branch of knowledge. Thus, the experts cannot reach an agreement in such fundamental and, as it were, basic issues, as what morphemes and phonemes precisely are.

The world depicted in Stanisław Lem’s science-fiction novel attempts to authenticate this biting reflection1 through the narrator’s education in mathematics, which coincides with his expectations toward scholarship. If, among those enlisted for the Project (created to read a signal from outer space), there had been a literary theorist, the state of our own discipline would have received an equally harsh summary from the caustic mathematics professor. At any rate, the crackpots and eccentrics who populate The Voice of the Lord could well have convinced Central Station that the interstellar “voice” bore all the hallmarks of an artistic composition. The annals of literary theory are strewn with quarrels over fundamental questions. These concern the names of the basic terms of artistic communication (text, metaphor), the definitions of large “sets” (genre names, literary movements), and the most capacious term of all: literature.

The participants in and observers of literary culture have, for centuries, been guided by four impulses, which have driven them to delve into literariness and literature. These impulses are formal/linguistic, emotional, ideological, and finally, academic.

The Formal/Linguistic Impulse

Nothing foretells much controversy on the formal/linguistic plane. After all, the DERIVATION MECHANISM is at work here, automatically “doubling” the name of every phenomenon, every empirical experiment, including the empirical substance of imagination, myth, legends, faith, and so on – enriching (in an essentially tautological manner) the constituent attributes with collective definitions, determining the identity of a given phenomenon. Thus the meaning of the term “human” presupposes “humanity,” the “spirit” constitutes “spirituality,” an identifier of “progress” is “progressiveness,” and the essence of “revolution” – ← 9 | 10 → “revolutionism.“ The field of these twin names is always open for expansion. This is favored by a neologistic tolerance (certainly going beyond the Polish language) for the invention of derivatives of this sort. Without infringing upon the norms of correctness one can freely discern suggestive and disarming neologisms, particularly in poetic language. Consider Julian Przyboś’s cosmogonical “Attack on Everythingness,” or Miron Białoszewski’s comical niepisaniowość [unwriteability] in the poem “Musification,” in which he acknowledged the “ość” suffix [which serves to create an abstract noun from an adjective – trans.] as an independent being in the world of “content,” imploring the Muse:

make contentful

The diverse lexical, dramatic, and comical innovations bring us back to the dilemmas of the thoughts that structure reality. A telling illustration of these theoretical quandaries is Czesław Miłosz’s “Magpieness,” describing the unexpected “invention” of a quarrel over universals – “centuries after the fact.” The subject/protagonist of this poem suddenly recognizes that a magpie he encountered in the forest is distinct from all other beings. Its magpieness, though not an empirical quality, exists utterly apart from the magpie, while its absence, our poeta doctus maintains, puts us at risk of feeling the existence of all the world’s other phenomena, jeopardizing even the existence of the lyrical “I” of “Magpieness”:

For if magpieness does not exist
Then nor does my own nature.3

In the paradigm we are outlining here (linguistically conceived) we find “literariness,” together with “literature,” as a formal identifier. By “formal,” once again, we have in mind something automatically generated by a derivation mechanism, no more than a formula to be completed, a question awaiting an answer, a blank in an unwritten “survey.” In The Dictionary of the Polish Language the team led by Witold Doroszewski defines “literariness” as a synonym of a “literary nature (proper to literary works).”4

What is this literary nature of the text? This we cannot determine from the dictionary entry, and it is hard to hold this against it, given that explicating the term “literariness” would entail lexicographers choosing sides in an endless debate, ← 10 | 11 → while a popular dictionary is obliged to sidestep ideological entanglements to whatever extent this is possible. The same, to some extent, goes for specialist lexicons. In his Dictionary of Literary Terms (which is, in many ways, outstanding), Janusz Sławiński reminds us that the category of literariness was introduced by the Russian Formalists “to indicate a set of properties peculiar to literature as the art of the word.” To this point the explanation differs in no way from lexicographical explanations. Sławiński expands on this subject, stating that the Formalists were interested in properties of the art of the word which they acknowledged to be decisive in its “irreduction to any other ways of using language, to cognitive, expressive, or persuasive ends.”5 A definition is replaced here with a negative description, suggesting something along the lines of a phenomenological reduction that involves discarding attributes that lead to goals, or “other,” namely cognitive, expressive, or persuasive ways of use. This points us onto a path of probable access to the term that concerns us here, but it still does not define it.

Whatever the case, the very fact of posing questions about literariness constitutes a powerful suggestion that the differentia specifica of literature can and ought to be found; for if it were to turn out that literariness does not exist, then this would mean (to paraphrase “Magpieness”) that nor does literature. And here the linguistic/formal implications become exhausted, leaving those interested to explore another realm entirely – the psychology of human aspirations.6

The Emotional Impulse

Some literary theories, whether contemporary or belonging to times past, put forward the role of emotion as the most important energy stimulating the life of art as such, and in particular the life of the art of the word. After all, ask the adherents of this idea, what, if not positive or negative emotions, spark a writer’s aspirations? And of course the road to our literary paradises and hells are paved with emotions. I remember Jerzy Litwiniuk, a poet and translator, repeating several times in a discussion on literature that it was a game with the reader’s nervous tissues. These impressions can hardly be contradicted, but the trouble is that many other situations in a person’s existence also are accompanied by various passions, although they might have nothing in common with literature. It is not enough to point to “emotions.” We must take on a more ambitious task: We ← 11 | 12 → must set apart and describe ATTRIBUTES OF EMOTIONS THAT ARE SPECIFICALLY LITERARY. This matter will be the topic of analysis in later chapters. Here I shall stop at a single observation, closely tied to the issue of my “Point of Departure.” In the processes of literary communication the feelings evoked through the direct contact with a particular work, both as created or as read by the author, need not by any means lead to a lively curiosity concerning the mystery of literature “as such.” Research into this phenomenon cannot complain of a shortage of testimonies pertaining to the peculiar field which Jan Parandowski once suggestively called “the alchemy of the word.” It is this latter, “alchemical” aim of knowledge that interests us in analyzing emotional aspirations to grasp the literariness in literature.

Before we explore the testimonies of emotions released by a hunger for knowledge pertaining to “the alchemy of the word,” let us reach back into our own memories (of childhood or youth) to confirm a simple truth. Literariness experienced during the earliest phase of initiation into reading or writing (one’s debut) does not seem a thing that is clearly formulated, where a faultlessly edited definiens could cast a crystalline and logical light upon a murky definiendum. Knowledge of the literariness of literature is most often made in the present, we might repeat after Victor Shklovsky, in a “semi-comprehensible manner,” and if it should be verbalized, it is provisionally and temporarily, intuitively and semi-consciously. Nonetheless, its FUNCTIONAL EXISTENCE is left in no doubt. For many subjects a satisfactory basis for a (generally faultless) distinction is dividing literary from non-literary texts, even if the very definition and description of this basis is deemed irrelevant, thankless, troublesome, barren, shameful. This is to destroy the intimacy of the artistic experience, to annihilate the oddity of passion, for when it is too difficult to carry out for whatever other reasons.

The lack of verbally expressed emotions is not a dependable symptom of their actual non-existence. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” says the famous seventh thesis of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. In the sphere we are examining, neither the impossibility of speaking nor the necessity to be silent is obligatory by nature, especially since, besides words, mental images or symbols in the imagination are helpful in registering emotions. I am not taking this mixture of semi-conscious, contourless, cloudy sensations of the mystery of the existence of the literary art to oppose or contradict the theory; on the contrary, I see it as the THEORY OF ORIGINAL SUBSTANCE. Ultimately, we all are lodged in it, or have been lodged in it; we extract ourselves and fall into its marches da capo al fine, because this original substance sends a call – answered by the minority, neglected by the majority – to transform raw pulp into form, and ← 12 | 13 → chaos into order. These are not the passions of popular culture, though nor do they necessarily confine themselves to an elitist “niche” – numerous and multilingual anthologies of quotations, many on the Internet, can be sold as an attractive and sought-out product by a certain segment of consumers.

Every epoch sees the appearance of new and the recurrence of old beliefs (or unbeliefs), knowledge (or ignorance), aphorisms, paradoxes, allegories, metaphors, jokes, mockeries, and demonstrations of power and powerlessness, immortalized in one and the same question: “What does the mystery of literature hold?” They overlap in a peculiar multicolored and sparkling KALEIDOSCOPE of thoughts and images. Records of emotional responses to questions on the essence of literary art are much like changing the kaleidoscope’s position, causing the configuration of colorful bits of glass to shift, forming ever-changing structures, and never falling apart into chaos, the same answers from changing perspectives revealing endlessly new constellations. It would be hard to overestimate the value of this material for research into the literary consciousness (and subconsciousness).

This issue, so absorbing for literary critics, deserves investigative collaboration with the above-mentioned psychology of human aspirations, under the condition that it goes beyond the sphere of elementary aspirations, serving to quench the needs essential to the survival of homo sapiens (psychologists sometimes narrow their studies to this field alone), making all of man’s ambitions a subject for reflection, including those that are unusual, odd, exclusive, or sporadic. Here we also find acts of SPONTANEOUS LITERARY CRITICISM.7 ← 13 | 14 →

For the purposes of the present “Point of Departure” it is crucial we turn our attention to a few characteristics of the dynamics and diversity of the positions presented in the evolution of emotional, SPONTANEOUS KNOWLEDGE ABOUT LITERARINESS. Its above-mentioned “kaleidoscopicness” is apparent in the INITIAL MOMENTS, when we see the utterly fundamental relationships between literature and literariness. While from a formal/linguistic perspective the “literariness/literature” pair of concepts is disciplined by a binary opposition, equaling such basic oppositions as the antinomy of the noumena and the phenomena, the model and the execution, the invariable and variables, the genotype and the phenotype, and so on. SPONTANEOUS LITERARY CRITICISM is capable of unceremoniously undermining, suspending, disarticulating, or annulling this opposition. As a rule, the emotional response to the question “what is literature?”8 is much the same as the experiences evoked in asking about literariness. And vice versa. Both the attempt to formulate an answer, be it straightforward or evasive, and the refusal to answer, illuminate or obscure the two poles of this dichotomy with identical impetus.

“Literature is the expression of a society.” The opinion recorded in this statement we can understand as meaning that the phenomenon called “literature” and (to a different degree) the phenomenon of “alchemy” – unnamed, and yet inferred – show their fundamental properties in that they are summoned into existence and perceived as an “expression of society.” An analogous course of reasoning here is a constant semantic probability, which finds its verbal expression or remains mere potential, “lying in readiness.” When we read that “an advantage of literature is that it allows people to put themselves in other people’s shoes,” this interpretation, too, of the phenomenon cannot be separated from the inferred characteristics of the universal model. Immanuel Kant puts forward the gift of empathy as the (most important!) indicator of literature (or perhaps literariness?). Both one and the other dictate the semantic limits marked by the above opinion. The field of responses to questions of literature/literariness expands in various directions and complicates itself in multifarious “kaleidoscopic” constellations. This occurs in part because the original terms often double up, functioning now as synonyms, now as antonyms, and at the same time, as signs of diverse scope, “opalescent” with incidental meanings. The kaleidoscope of emotions released by literature/literariness and inscribed in ever-new forms is ← 14 | 15 → not limited to diverse responses to one of the two basic terms. On the contrary, it gathers and variously configures countless related concepts, which, though they might vary in terms of content and scope, always point in the same direction.

In many texts “poetry” is used in place of “literature,” and “poeticness” in place of “literariness,” and sometimes too, instead of the latter, though far more seldom, “poesy” (Bruno Jasieński in Boot in a Buttonhole) or “lyricism” (Julian Przyboś in How Lyricism Is Possible). Exchanging “literariness” for “poeticness” leads us to recall the history of poetological thought. Before there was talk of literature as such, all artistic initiatives in the sphere of language were called poetry, a name that covered lyrical, epic, and dramatic poetry. This custom was still in effect in works as recent as Georg Wilhelm Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics. The great philosopher, who shows, nota bene, an impressive knowledge of the field of poetics, including a professional knowledge of versology, used the concept of “poetry” to cover the triad of lyric, epic, and drama, thus the art of the word in its entirety. This means that the element of das Poetische (“poetic,” and “that which is poetic”) that he isolates can be read as a terminological prototype of both twentieth-century POETICNESS AND LITERARINESS.

The reverse can also be true, however, as “poetry” or “poeticness” are treated on a pars pro toto basis, as a separate, and most representative figure of literature/literariness. Analyzing the words of Carlos Ruiz Zafón – “poetry lies, in its adorable wicked way”9 – we can find confirmation of this observation not only in poetry, but in other, or at least some literary systems, if we treat this “adorable lie” as an extract of fictional prose or drama.

At the same time, in the subject under discussion we seldom find direct attempts at definition or even free-form description of literariness or poeticness. This state of things could well be defensive, characteristic of an emotional relationship with art, or a distance from “cold” or “dry” logic, which divides the phenomenon from its essence. The emotional block is created here as a result of tension between the desire for definitive success and a sense of the growing resistance of the material, until one gives up on a response. In Hegel’s view:

To define the poetic as such or to give a description of what is poetic horrifies nearly all who have written about poetry. And in fact if a man begins to talk about poetry as an imaginative art without having previously examined what art’s content and general ← 15 | 16 → mode of representation is, he will find it extremely difficult to know where to look for the proper essence of poetry.10

There is, however, a difference, and one that is, for us, immeasurably important, between a silent “horror” at establishing “the proper essence of poetry” and a demonstrative declaration of proud, ostentatious, and (given the material) Socratic ignorance. Attitudes of this sort are common, and increasingly so as the history of literary consciousness progresses. It is a fact worth pondering that the most frequently exhibited stance – from Romanticism to the present – is the IGNORANCE OF THE AUTHOR. This concerns the ignorance of poets in particular: “Whatever one says about poetry is a mistake”11; “Poetry, on the whole, is a ride into the unknown”12; “I don’t know what poetry is,/ what it’s for, and what it does”13; “no one knows where lies the magic of wild poetry”14; “But what is poetry? […] I don’t know, and I don’t know, and I don’t know.”15


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
artificiality and naturalness of speech artificiality and naturalness of chaos artificiality and naturalness of structure
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 363 pp.

Biographical notes

Edward Balcerzan (Author)

Edward Balcerzan is a literary theorist, translator, poet, essayist, and professor at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. He is a correspondent for the Polish Academy of Sciences, Honorary Doctor of Szczecin University and scholar of Polish and Russian poetry of the 20th century. His fields of work are literary theory and translatology.


Title: Literariness