I like literary history as much as the next person. It’s just that mine is made up of human beings, not logs.
Mr. Q writes a novel. He has a score to settle with the world, and he settles it
on paper, symbolically. Let us suppose that his novel is about a deserving individual
in conflict with an undeserving society. He writes the work from the standpoint of his
unique engrossments. However, as Malcolm Cowley has pointed out, there is a whole
class of such novels. And if we take them all together, in a lump, "statistically," they
become about as unique as various objects all going downstream together in a flood. They
are "all doing the same" -- they become but different individuations of a common
paradigm. As so considered, they become "symbolic" of something -- they become
"representative" of a social trend.
I want to push back against this line a little, though I want to make clear, first, that I don’t take myself to be disagreeing in the slightest with Lee, and second, that I strongly feel the attraction of the Burke, which surely applies very nicely in all kinds of contexts. Burke is right that most of our actions are both idiosyncratic (when considered on their own terms) and representative (when considered in relation to other objects). It’s just like that lovely line in Proust about love affairs—from the inside, each is special; from the outside, they’re all the same:
One can of course reduce everything, if one regards it in its social aspect, to the most
commonplace item of newspaper gossip. ... But I know very well that what is true, what at
least is also true, is everything that I have thought, is what I have read in Albertine’s eyes, is
the fears that torment me, is the problem I have set myself with regard to Albertine. The
story of the hesitant suitor and the broken engagement may correspond to this, as the report
of a theatrical performance made by an intelligent reporter may give us the subject of one of
Ibsen’s plays. But there is something beyond those facts that are reported.
This is beautiful and powerful stuff; who hasn’t, on occasion, taken a step back from her apparently unique concerns to see them, all of a sudden, as just the millionth variant on an age-old theme? I’m just not sure that when it comes to literary studies, we should draw the conclusions Burke does. Burke seems to believe that it’s just a matter of a happy choice between criticism (focus on the idiosyncrasy) and history (focus on the trend); you pays your money, you takes your log. This just can’t be right, and here’s why.
First of all, many “trends” are initiated by individual literary works. The Odyssey begat the Aeneid (in different cultural circumstances) which begat the Divine Comedy (in different cultural circumstances again). This would be the equivalent of a log creating a stream.
Second, literary works tend to belong to many “trends” at once. (What is In Search of Lost Time: a confessional novel? a bit of belated Balzac? a reaction to the fin de siècle? a piece of “queer” fiction? a reaction to Schopenhauer? all of the above!) This is a log being carried by five different streams.
Third, cultural context is never a monolith. Even where it’s possible to isolate a problem of particular importance to a strand of culture, the solution offered is almost always multiple. Ancients and moderns, whigs and tories; naturalists and decadents; avant-garde and modernism... The same stream pushes its various logs in different directions.
Not so good for the metaphor. As far as I know, real-life logs do not create streams. Real-life logs are not carried by multiple streams. And real-life logs are not pushed in different directions by the same stream. Good literary historians—and there are plenty—understand all these things; their histories are made up of human beings and their intentional products, not logs and streams. A history of literature without agents is like a history of the solar system without the sun.