By Invitation

Lies That Tell the Truth: Tiziana de Rogatis on Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults

September 2020 will see the publication in English of Elena Ferrante’s latest novel, The Lying Life of Adults, translated by Anne Goldstein for Europa Editions (translation of La vita bugiarda degli adulti, Edizioni E/O, Nov. 2019). Very successful in Italy, the novel tells the story of the adolescent Giovanna, born and raised on the hill of Vomero, a well-to-do and refined Neapolitan neighborhood. Giovanna’s passage into adulthood entails a voyage into Naples’ underbelly, where her father comes from, where the terrible and outlandish aunt Vittoria lives, and where they speak a language that is not hers. Giovanna chooses to begin her tale at the moment of her father’s realization that she, his daughter, was growing to resemble his despicable sister, Vittoria. Lying—a habit Giovanna falls into quickly as she tries to navigate two very different worlds—is the solid structure on which the adults around her have built their lives. 


I have asked Tiziana de Rogatis to speak to Arcade about The Lying Life of Adults. De Rogatis, herself a Neapolitan, is an associate professor of Comparative Literature at the University for Foreigners of Siena and a major scholar of Elena Ferrante. Her Elena Ferrante’s Key Words (Edizioni E/O, 2018; translated from the Italian Elena Ferrante: Parole chiave by Will Scutt for Europa Editions) has gained great success since its publication in English, in December 2019. On January 23 of this year, the book was, in fact, number 50 on Amazon’s chart of best sellers in Italian Literature. Elena Ferrante’s Key Words is an analysis of the major themes of Ferrante’s oeuvre. It is a conceptual roadmap that leads to a deeper understanding of the author’s poetics while connecting the dots of its universe. The book cover bears Elena Ferrante’s praise for de Rogatis: “I greatly admire the work of Tiziana de Rogatis. She is a reader of deep refinement. Often I think that she knows my books better than I. So, I read her with admiration and remain silent.” (San Lian Sheng Huo Zhou Kan magazine, China)


In your review of The Lying Life of Adults (Repubblica, Nov. 29, 2019) you notice that the only restriction Giovanna’s very liberal father gives his daughter is never to speak Neapolitan. It is very common for parents of the Neapolitan middle class to forbid their children to speak Neapolitan so that they can separate themselves, intellectually, from the lower middle class and the working class. Their mission is successful only to an extent since the young will learn the dialect anyway, although a dandy version of it that is, in form and content, far from the guttural expression of the city’s underbelly. Yet, unlike the quartet, the Neapolitan dialect finally appears in writing in Ferrante’s latest novel: how do you see this change in Ferrante’s work? 


de Rogatis: The Lying Life of Adults is an original novel because Giovanna’s narrative voice is no longer one linguistically on the border between the working-class and the bourgeois worlds. This voice is entirely marked by the hypocrisy of the progressive petty bourgeoisie. In this context, the Neapolitan language is like an iceberg that suddenly emerges and breaks the surface of the fiction. At the same time, Neapolitan is the bearer of other forms of fiction: in short, there is no romantic dualism between authentic popular and inauthentic bourgeois. Neapolitan has an explosive function but the rubble generated by the explosion reassembles in an even more inauthentic picture.


Zia Vittoria, this powerful force of corruption and destruction, and yet bearer of truth, not only shows several traits of Lila’s personality, but also holds a very similar function in the structure of the novel: she is the power Giovanna has to reckon with on several levels like Lenù had to do with her brilliant friend. Would you agree? 


de Rogatis: Zia Vittoria is the emblem of the ambivalence of the Neapolitan language of which I spoke earlier. Indeed, she brings—as you rightly point out—liberating and unsettling features strongly inspired by the demonological code of the witch, to which even the character of Lila is connected. At the same time, however, this anarchic and vital magma does not have the emancipative charge that moved Lila. In this sense, and much more fully than Lila, Zia Vittoria expresses the reactionary background of the Neapolitan sub-proletarian culture. If, on the one hand, the existential sexual experience that Aunt Vittoria develops is exceptionally instinctive and carnal; on the other hand, her sexual morality is retrospective and false. With it, the aunt exercises a despotic power over all the young women who gravitate around her.


This is, as you wrote, a bitter novel. Giovanna negotiates the world of the adults around her with as many lies as she deems useful. She comes into adulthood by discovering and using the power of lying even before her family universe, built on deception, falls apart. What is Ferrante leaving her reader with, this time? 


de Rogatis: Ferrante leaves the reader with a reflection on failure. With this novel, the author attempts to scour the failure of progressive culture’s great projects of emancipation and education, as well as the failure to rework an ending and a trauma: those of a dualistic geopolitical system (capitalist world / socialist world ) which is lost precisely in the years of Giovanna’s formation, the Nineties of the Twentieth Century immediately following the collapse of the Berlin wall and the fatwa on the Satanic Verses of Salman Rushdie. All this comes in the novel as an investigation into the linguistic rhetoric of the characters, who—like a bone marrow now emptied of internal decalcification—recite some political and anthropological liturgies void of meaning.


What new terms would you now add to your collection of keywords in Ferrante’s work?


de Rogatis: Surely, I would now work on the keywords lie and truth, by both showing how truth can be dictated by a lie (the lie that resides in the form of Ferrante’s fictionality built on hyper-romance) and conveying how the deconstruction of a lie is a truth that can, however, generate other lies (this is the novel’s narrative mechanism declared right from the title), and, finally, I would identify the foundation of these two new keywords in the great Italian writer Elsa Morante.

Online Learning in the Time of Corona

I grew up in the aftermath of Nasser’s Egypt, where public education was made free for all. For me, learning has always been remote… It began with walks to the public libraries, and random flaneur strollings in Old Cairo’s Sur al-Azbakiyya , a treasure hunt for books, old and new, in a modest constellation of open-air sidewalk bookstores: a crumpled and wrinkled King Lear , an overused Jane Eyre , a heavily marked Emma with blue ink notes on the marginalia, a Mother Courage missing its last scene, a torn-apart copy of al-Jurjani’s Dala’il al-I ‘jaz , or a pristine Tree of Being that Ibn ‘

The Queerness of Straight Time in an Era of Climate Change

We live in strange times. This might be why theorizations of time have proliferated within literary studies of late. Much of this work—within queer theory, especially, but also in accounts of various national archives—has tended to stake its claims in opposition to a totalizing temporality attached to history, to the nation, and to other forms of cultural hegemony, a temporality envisioned as linear, forward-moving, and on a singular track. Figured thus as straight time, such a figuration has its roots in the standardization of time central to Benedict Anderson’s theories of nationalism, which often appear in the new temporal studies as the foil against which a cluster of temporalities operating at the subnational level set themselves. These other temporalities and rhythms appear as the grounds of a politically progressive path into a future—or not, as Lee Edelman has infamously argued—imagined to be more equitable and just than the present or the past from which they are argued to be radically decoupled. Despite this tendency to retain hope for a better future, by critiquing forward-moving historical time as part and parcel of oppressive regimes of cultural and political power, the new temporal studies’ has made privileging antiprogressive temporalities the default doctrine of progressive political critique, as if by resisting linear time we can resist the oppressive structures that deploy it.

Meanwhile, climate change is throwing a wrench into such faith. Humankind finds itself hurtling toward the end times, caught up in an apocalyptic linearity increasingly difficult to resist. Climate change certainly does exacerbate the types of violence against minoritized communities that the new temporal studies have helped to illuminate; indeed, the cascading climatastrophes we face impact minoritized groups and nonhuman others more heavily than those with traditional forms of social, political, and economic power, as numerous scholars working on questions of environmental justice and the environmental humanities have shown. But the violence wrought by straight time differs in scale than that of climate change, whose extinction of humankind ultimately renders such distinctions moot. (Again, it’s worth restating: extinction’s indiscriminancy does not negate the value of attending to the differential violences wrought by climate change en route to such an endpoint. But for the purposes of this essay, my point is something like the Second Law of Thermodynamics meets material ecocriticism.) Even Lee Edelman’s willful rejection of the future looks surprisingly quaint when read against climate fatalism. Taken seriously, that is, climate change might produce the most antisocial of theories, embedding us within the queerest time of all: the future we are hurtling toward may reject us before we have any chance to reject it. [1]

In an essay on Sarah Orne Jewett’s queer ecological futurity, Sarah Ensor has similarly put Edelman and the type of apocalyptic environmental thought I am discussing here into conversation, albeit as a way of claiming a future that might look different than the one proposed by straight time. For Ensor, “the question is not the future, yes or no, but the future, which and whose, where and when and how” (414). [2] She answers this question by turning to Jewett’s spinsters, who, without children of their own in whom to invest their desires for the future, “[engage] in a more impersonal mode of stewardship—one whose investment is neither linear nor directly object-based” (416). But to insist as Ensor does here that this is non- or antilinear is to negate what makes the future so strange in the era of climate change, which is its inevitable negation of all the markers by which culture has tended to imagine the future, peopled, as these imaginings are with, well…people. As Mark McGurl has written in nodding, like Ensor, toward the way in which the destructive capacity of the Anthropocene might open up space for social and economic relations to be reshaped more equitably, “Who knows but that what arises from that rubble might not be better than what we have now?—before someday most likely becoming incomparably worse.”[3]

McGurl’s view of the future opens up by way of a distant past that has become central to Anthropocene critique: deep time, which appears via the backward glance McGurl ascribes to the “new cultural geology.” So often held up as the exemplary temporality of the Anthropocene, deep time is both straight and queer—linear and nonnormative, historical and inhuman. It alters what we mean by history, blurring the line between human and natural histories, as numerous scholars, most notably perhaps Dipesh Chakrabarty, have shown.[4] This queering of history marks one of climate change’s most compelling features, for it warps what we have for so long taken for granted. To talk about what was once the most mundane of topics—the weather—is now to invoke crisis. Indeed, what climate change does so well is to render unfamiliar the things we have been looking at all along, to distort the known into something both familiar and strange. Doing so to the arrow of historical time by putting human history into the enlarged framework of natural history does not negate time’s linear thrust. It only elongates that long temporal line, even as it opens up a host of alternative ways of articulating what it feels like to inhabit a time that keeps marching on, far faster than we would like it to, as every missed goal for reducing carbon emissions reminds us.

Like Ensor, I want to turn to Jewett here, but less to consider what Jewett tells us about how we might more equitably inhabit the future than to see what Jewett can tell us about inhabiting a present in which historical time appears both deranged and inescapable.[5] Dunnet Landing, the setting of Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) feels timeless even as the town has been noticeably left behind by the economic and cultural changes sweeping through the United States at the turn into the twentieth century. For numerous critics, this temporal disjuncture has been rooted in an opposition between Dunnet Landing’s outmoded socioeconomic life and its timelessly pastoral natural world. As Warner Berthoff noted in an early appreciation of Jewett, although she writes of a “community that is inexorably, however luminously, dying,” it is “[o]nly society [that] is dying, only human life: water, rock, woods, birds, vegetation are alive and—in the time we are allowed to look at them—surpassingly beautiful” (33, 39; original emphasis). Sixty years after Berthoff noted this distinction, praising Jewett’s descriptions of the natural world, we now know that human life wasn’t the only aspect of coastal Maine entering its twilight: average temperatures have climbed by around 2 degrees Fahrenheit since Pointed Firs was first published; sea levels have risen by a foot; native plant life has been decimated by rising temperatures and an influx of invasive species; animals on land and in the sea have seen their populations shrink. These are only the beginnings of an anthropogenically induced environmental instability that will continue to accelerate, wreaking greater havoc on a state that remains economically dependent on its natural resources.[6] In writing of a coastal community being left behind by a rapidly industrializing nation, Jewett encapsulates not only the sociological shifts in the United States taking place at the end of nineteenth century, but the remaking of the material world—both its natural and built environments—effected by these changes, rendering the melancholy of dispossession that haunts her stories an anticipation of a much broader condition, a century on. Dunnet Landing, suspended in a changing world, thus turns out to be far more like the ghostly Arctic village described in Jewett’s sketch “The Waiting Place” than even critics recognizing the parallel have claimed.[7] Like the Arctic “inhabitants . . . neither living nor dead” of whom Captain Littlepage hears tell, Dunnet Landing, too, seems “a kind of waiting-place between this world an’ the next” (22, 21). It is a ghostly space that, in light of the dramatic alteration climate change threatens to effect, we too now inhabit—a world poised between life and death. 

When Littlepage begins his Arctic narrative in earnest, the amount of mediation in which Jewett embeds its narration calls attention to the aesthetic as a register for both encountering and displacing the natural world. The narrator tells of Captain Littlepage’s relation of a story he heard from a sailor, Gaffett, whom he met in the northern reaches of Canada—a story within a story within a story. Like an actual Arctic expedition, these narratives have a difficult time reaching their destination: Gaffett “seem[s] speechless” when Littlepage first meets him, and although he is “waiting to find the right men to tell” how to reach the waiting-place and has “all his directions written out straight as a string to give to the right ones,” he refuses to give them up (20, 23); Littlepage’s story proceeds in fits and starts and near its end he loses its thread altogether, “suddenly forgetting his subject” (24); and the narrator stretches Littlepage’s tale across three chapters, as if it is somehow ill fitting for the sketch-based chapters of Pointed Firs.

In this tension between an inability or unwillingness to tell and a form of telling that exceeds its acceptable boundaries, Jewett mimics here the narratives of Artic exploration that had been popular in the nineteenth century. Benjamin Morgan has written of this genre’s “tension between a claim to transparent description and a poetic evocation of the indescribable.” [8] For Morgan, the Arctic and its nineteenth-century accounts challenge our traditional forms of historicization by offering up a lingering “afterness” through technical description and climate data that make visible a transhistorical feeling human body, susceptible as it is to a numbing cold that doesn’t quite fit within the triumphalist narratives we have associated with the Arctic sublime (4). If this compresses time’s progressive quality, conflating past and present, these exploration narratives also operate within the narrative we are getting better at telling, of the changes in global climate; as Morgan acknowledges, their climatological data has found new life within contemporary climate science. Thus, even as Morgan’s trans- or antihistorical human body resists linear history, the afterness of which he writes reimposes that forward movement of time.

Jewett’s arctic, a landscape reached by traveling beyond the Arctic ice and filled with ghostly “fog-shaped men,” is far queerer than this, for it pulls in two directions at once, offering up both an afterness and a beforeness embedded within an apocalyptic linearity Jewett herself could not have fully recognized (22). That Littlepage believes Gaffet’s story shows his attachment to the myth of an open polar sea, which had circulated for centuries but had by the time of Jewett’s writing been largely debunked, only to return again in our own moment as a vision of climate change’s dystopic future. Gaffett’s temperate waiting-place is thus both already anachronistic and yet prescient of the material reality of a climate-changed Arctic that will be free of ice and marked by the trace of former inhabitants. The moment in which Jewett wrote, when an ice-free Arctic seemed mere fantasy, now seems like the anomaly. Such a landscape invokes the doubled sense of being “out of time” that Dunnet Landing exemplifies throughout Pointed Firs: on the one hand, absented from the linear, forward-moving time of national progress; on the other, rapidly approaching its own end, as in the phrase “running out of time.” If this marks Jewett’s collection as an anticipatory allegory, Littlepage’s failure to continue his story after his own feeling of this doubled asynchrony—no longer of economic value to the nation and nearing the ends of his own mortality—stands in for our own crisis of narration in a moment when the natural world feels no longer either recognizable or redemptive. Appropriately, then, Littlepage loses his narrative thread upon looking at a map of North America, drawn more recently than his own Arctic travels and so with newly mapped coastlines, that forces him to confront a world that looks little like the one he thought he knew: “his eyes were fixed upon the northernmost regions and their careful recent outlines with a look of bewilderment” (23). Like Littlepage’s bewildered gaze, we too look around us at a world we barely recognize, even as we look back—whether into the far reaches of a pre-human deep time or to earlier fantasies of an ice-free Arctic—to one that presents to us our post-crisis future.

Works Cited

Abel, David. “In Maine, Scientists See Signs of Climate Change.” The Boston Globe, 21 Sept. 2014,

Berthoff, Warner. “The Art of Jewett’s Pointed Firs.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 1, 1959, 31-53. JSTOR,

Caserio, Robert L., Lee Edelman, Judith Halberstam, José Esteban Muñoz, and Tim Dean. “The Antisocial Thesis in Queer Theory.” PMLA, vol. 121, no. 3, 2006, 819-28. JSTOR,

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, no. 2, 2009, 197-222. JSTOR, doi: 10.1086/596640.

Eakin, Paul John. “Sarah Orne Jewett and the Meaning of Country Life.” American Literature, vol. 38, no. 4, 1967, 508–531. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/2923456.

Ensor, Sarah. “Spinster Ecology: Rachel Carson, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Nonreproductive Futurity.” American Literature, vol. 84, no. 2, 2012, 409-35. doi: 10.1215/00029831-1587395.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement. U of Chicago P, 2016.

Hobbs, Michael. “World beyond the Ice: Narrative Structure in The Country of the Pointed Firs.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 29, no. 1, 1992, 27-34. ProQuest,

Jewett, Sarah Orne. 1896. The Country of the Pointed Firs. Penguin, 1995.

McGurl, Mark. “The New Cultural Geology,” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 57, no. 3/4, 2011, 380-90. JSTOR,

Morgan, Benjamin. “After the Arctic Sublime.” New Literary History, vol. 47, no. 1, 2016, 1-26. Project Muse, doi: 10.1353/nlh.2016.

[1] See the PMLA forum “The Antisocial Thesis in Queer Theory,” with contributions by Robert L. Caserio, Lee Edelman, Judith Halberstam, José Esteban Muñoz, and Tim Dean.

[2] Sarah Ensor, “Spinster Ecology.”

[3] Mark McGurl, “The New Cultural Geology,” Twentieth Century Literature 57.3/4 (2011), 389.

[4] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses.”

[5] On climate change as deranging our traditional forms of meaning, see Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement.

[6] As David Abel writes in the Boston Globe, in an article on the detrimental effects of climate change in Maine, the state has “the highest percentage of forested land and a long, famously scenic coastline, where timber and fisheries remain at the heart of the economy.”

[7] See, for example, Michael Hobbs’s “World Beyond the Ice: Narrative Structure in The Country of the Pointed Firs,” and Paul John Eakin’s “Sarah Orne Jewett and the Meaning of Country Life.”

[8] Morgan, “After the Arctic Sublime,” 5.

Postmodernism and Thing Theory

Matthew Mullins’s book, Postmodernism in Pieces, was published by Oxford University Press in 2016. A paperback edition has just been made available. 


In 2016 I published a book entitled Postmodernism in Pieces: Materializing the Social in U.S. Fiction in which I set out to answer a number of questions, including, “What does postmodernism have to do with thing theory?” For many literary scholars, these two concepts might seem unrelated, perhaps even antithetical. Postmodern literature is concerned with ideals, thing theory with materials. Postmodern literature dazzles us with formal and philosophical pyrotechnics; thing theory focuses on the mundane, the everyday, the quotidian. Postmodern literature represents things as symbolic objects circulating through a consumer society; thing theory strives to consider things in themselves. Didn’t postmodern literature free scholars from the necessity of reconciling the text with some material world outside it? Doesn’t thing theory construe the text as another thing among others in a material network? Didn’t postmodernism collapse all material into language, and doesn’t thing theory collapse all language into materiality?

This tension made the collision between postmodernism and thing theory inevitable for me. What I found as I looked back to some of the key figures in the pantheon of literary postmodernism was that many of them would make first rate thing theorists. For starters, these writers have little faith in ideals and generalizations, almost always preferring materials and particularities. In his essay “Postmodernism Revisited,” John Barth associates being a novelist with a predilection for particularity: “Fred and Shirley and Mike and Irma seem intuitively realer to me than does the category human beings; the cathedrals at Seville and Barcelona and Santiago de Compostela seem more substantial than the term Spanish Gothic; and the writings of Gabriel García Márquez and Italo Calvino and Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon—even the writings of John Barth—have ontological primacy, to my way of thinking, over the category Postmodern fiction” (16). Barth, like many of his postmodern compatriots, prefers to look at things rather than through them.

This compulsion to look at rather than through is central to thing theory. In his field-defining essay on “Thing Theory,” Bill Brown references a scene in A. S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale in which a dirty window leads a character to look at rather than through the pane and thus long for real, tangible objects (1). Just for fun, the character is a doctoral student who has reached the outer limits of his patience with Lacan and with deconstruction. There is a tension here. On the one hand, postmodern literature is committed to looking at, and yet the project of postmodern theory might well be defined as looking through, looking through whatever seems to be natural, normal, or given to reveal how those things are always already constructed, normalized, or made. We might even read the turn to things as a turn away from postmodernism, or at least from postmodern theory. And yet, this insistence on looking at resonated with my readings of postmodern fiction.

Postmodern fiction is preoccupied with looking at things which, under strict scrutiny, seem to dissolve. What had drawn me to postmodern literature in the first place was its brilliant and manifold ways of undoing what seemed certain. Ishmael Reed could tell a story so familiar that, when it began to smoke and sputter, I’d come to doubt everything I thought I knew. John Barth could play with the conventions of narrative in such a way that I’d feel as if I didn’t even know what a story was anymore. Postmodern fiction would turn its critical gaze on something “given” like race, history, gender, or class, and reveal that whatever it was we thought existed turns out to be a mirage, a fabrication, or—to use postmodern language—a social construction. The implication, for better or worse, was that these things were somehow fake, or that they didn’t really exist. This confused me because the language of “construction” seemed so very material to me; it seemed like the perfect fit with thing theory, which by then had become a branch of a larger tree scholars were calling “new materialism.”

It was reading new materialist scholars across disciplines—Brown in literary studies, Bruno Latour in science studies, and Jane Bennett in political science—that led me to ask a question I couldn’t find anyone else asking: constructed out of what? If postmodern literature was fixated on revealing the constructed nature of the general categories we rely on in our interactions with one another, then what were the particulars out of which those general categories were constructed? More specifically, was postmodern literature simply interested in revealing how race or gender were constructs, or was it actually more concerned with tracing the processes and the materials out of which they were constructed?

And so, postmodernism and thing theory came together because I saw that postmodern fiction was obsessed with the everyday objects out of which humans construct their worlds. Construction became more of a verb, more of a process, and less of a noun or a product. The novels asked me to investigate how race, or class, or history were socially constructed rather than to merely conclude these categories were social constructs. In Reassembling the Social, Latour points out that, for most of his colleagues in the social and natural sciences, “to say that something was ‘constructed’ […] meant that something was not true. They seemed to operate with the strange idea that you had to submit to this rather unlikely choice: either something was real and not constructed, or it was constructed and artificial, contrived and invented, made up and false” (90). This was my experience in literary studies as well. It seemed subtle at first, but the implications steadily grew: I wanted to talk, not about how Morrison could reveal that whiteness was a mere construct—though that is a key element in understanding her work—but about how she could help us come to terms with the historical emergence and construction of whiteness over time. What we needed, it seemed to me, was a more material postmodernism.

But a more material postmodernism leads away from the very usefulness of general categories like, well, postmodernism. It does not have to lead away from categories full stop, but it diminishes the use of categories that take the form of isms because materiality resists the reduction of things to codified orthodoxies or doctrines. Postmodernism falls short of being an ism, and, I concluded, it marks the end of that way of organizing literary history. Like the poems of Lauren Olamina in Octavia Butler’s Parables series, postmodernism’s total commitment to process, to change, represented an end to philosophical/theological categories (i.e. Romanticism, Realism, Modernism, Postmodernism) masquerading as historical/narrative categories. Rather than continuing to construct orthodoxies that we then challenge, deconstruct, and rewrite, postmodern literature marked a turning point in how scholars could conceive of history in view of literary production. The texts themselves resist the kind of classification that must, in turn, be dissolved.

Three years after its publication, Postmodernism in Pieces is being released as a paperback and I’m thinking more and more about books as objects. What are they for? How do they function? The answer postmodernism gave is that books question, critique, and reveal; they challenge, demonstrate, lay bare. Scholars in the postmodern tradition came to rely on literary texts for their inherent suspiciousness. As Rita Felski puts it in her essay, “Suspicious Minds,” they do “the work of suspicion for us” (217). In other words, postmodern literary criticism most often figured literary texts as suspicious objects. But if texts can call into question the things we take for granted, if they can show how those things are historically emergent and materially constructed can’t they also construct other, even better, visions of life?

I don’t know that I saw it at the time, but I was thinking through the uses and limits of suspicion in Postmodernism in Pieces. The works of fiction I examined attend to the materials out of which social categories get constructed, but they, themselves, are also things, things out of which our social spheres are constructed. What kinds of things are Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Don DeLillo’s Underworld? They are certainly suspicious. Jazz offers multiple representations of the same events and entities over and over again. Which perspective is the true perspective? DeLillo experiments with history in a similar manner, giving readers multiple views of the same historical gaps to show that master narratives simply do not work. At root, these texts seem grounded in difference—by which I mean they tend to treat epistemological limitations as evidence of the fact that humans are fundamentally different and disconnected rather than similar and connected.

But these novels are also grounded in recognition. Difference and recognition are not quite at odds, but neither are they perfectly in sync. Postmodern fiction helps us recognize the limits of what we can know, but it does so by putting us in relation with others whose experiences differ from our own. The inevitable demystification of our own stories and assumptions is predicated upon an encounter with unfamiliar stories. If we recognize ourselves in the lives of those who differ from us, we can see the way our own lives are constructed; it becomes possible to imagine dramatically different perspectives, even if only by fits and starts. It is this more constructive and imaginative dimension of postmodernism that seems consonant with project of postcritique as articulated by Felski and others. Presuming the necessary work of suspicion, what other kinds of work can literature do? What worlds can it imagine? What bridges of difference can it cross?

Thing theory and postcritical reading offer new points of entry into the time and texts we once called postmodern. For a while, I thought I had written the last book on postmodernism, but now I can see that perhaps I just wrote the last book that used that old frame to talk about literary production in the postwar period. What other ways of reading may yet open to us?


“Introduction” to Shazaya wa Ramad, Nazik al-Malaʾika (1947)

In poetry, as in life, Bernard Shaw’s expression—“The golden rule is that there are no golden rules”—still holds true, and for good reason. Poetry is born from life’s events, and life’s events do not follow any specific rule of organization, nor are life’s objects and feelings arranged according to any particular color scheme. Still, this view does not contradict the tendency to divide poetry into schools and sects such as “Classical,” “Romantic,” “Realist,” “Symbolist,” “Surrealist,” etc., which is common among many literary critics. These divisions do not, after all, represent rules; they are only judgments.

Many might agree with my opinion that Arabic poetry has yet to stand on its own two feet, after a long slumber in which bygone centuries continued to weigh heavily upon it. For the most part, we are still prisoners, held captive by the rules our forebears established in the pre-Islamic and early Islamic periods. We are still gasping for air in our poems, shackling our emotions in the chains of old meters and creaking, dead expressions. No sooner do some of us try to disobey than we are met with the resistance of a thousand jealous protectors of our language, a thousand guardians of the poetic traditions invented by one ancient man who understood what suited his time and whose invention we have since solidified and adopted as custom. It is as though language cannot be safe unless it is frozen in the state in which it existed a thousand years ago, as though poetry cannot be poetry if its metrical feet diverge from the system created by al-Khalil.[1]

Some might ask: what’s wrong with al-Khalil’s method? What’s wrong with the language our ancestors have used for centuries? The response to these questions is beyond the scope of a short introduction to a poetry collection such as this. What’s wrong with al-Khalil’s method, you ask? Hasn’t it grown rusty from the palpations of so many pens and lips over the years? Haven’t our ears grown so accustomed to it, our lips so constantly repeated it, and our pens so thoroughly gnawed at it that they’ve finally spit it out in the end? For centuries, we’ve been describing our emotions using the same style, and now that style no longer has any taste or color. Life has changed; images, colors, and feelings have been turned on their heads, and despite this fact our poetry is still variations on qifa nabki and banat suʿad.[2] If the meters remain, and the rhymes remain, won’t the general idea be the same as well?

Some might ask: what is language? Why is it necessary to give it new horizons? They forget that if language doesn’t keep pace with life, it dies. The reality is that the Arabic language does not yet possess the life-giving strength required to confront the cyclones of fear and fire that fill our souls today. It was once an inspiring language: laughing, weeping, blowing like a storm, moving our hearts. Then generations of specialists embalmed and petrified its expressions, turning them into readymade facsimiles which they distributed to writers and poets without realizing that one poet can do for language what a thousand grammarians and linguists together could never do. The poet, with his sharpened sensibilities and careful linguistic ear, can stretch words to accommodate new and unheard-of meanings. Driven by his artistic sensibility, he might tear up a given rule, not to do harm to language, but to urge it forward. The poet or man of letters, then, is the one in whose hands language develops. As for the grammarian and the linguist, they have nothing to do with it. The grammarian and the linguist have one important duty: to notice things, and to extract general rules from the writers and poets with the sharpest sensibilities.

The man of letters whose sensibilities we will agree to call “sharp,” however, must have a deep cultural education whose roots extend to the innermost core of his native literature, ancient and modern alike, and to some familiarity with the literature of at least one foreign country as well. This education should instill in him such a strong linguistic sensibility that everything he creates will be beautiful and exalted. Whenever he tears up a rule, adds new color to a word, or creates a new expression, we feel it is the best possible innovation, and we begin to treat it as a new “golden rule.”

But the sharp litterateur’s occupation will not be limited to breaking a rule here and adding new meaning there. He will have a more specific responsibility than this—one which the nature of living human languages will impose upon him. He will have to insert a key change into the literary dictionary of his era. He will have to disregard many of the words used in past centuries and create in their place new words that have never been used before,[3] because words grow old in the same way that everything touched by the fingers of use in this ever-changing life grows old. As the years pass, words can take on hardness through repetition and gradually lose their many-branching meanings. They come to have single, fixed meanings that paralyze the writer’s feelings and inhibit his freedom of expression.

There is another important justification for this attempt to distance ourselves from frequently used words and expressions: the human ear is bored by familiar images and repeated sounds. Such repetition can strip words of their vitality and their multiple meanings. For example, we Arab poets now naturally avoid words such as “amber,” “camphor,” “benzoil branch,” “crescent moon,” “lovelocks,” “oud,” “narcissus,” “pearls.” These are words that, in previous eras, seemed refined and poetic. Perhaps at the time they were only used by the most innovative poets.

Throughout my study of contemporary literatures, however, I’ve noticed the following curious thing: that we, in this era, have forgotten the specialized lexical meaning of the word badr (full moon), almost disregarding it completely. In its place, we use the word qamar (moon), and very few contemporary poets use the word badr except in rare instances. I confess that I myself sometimes go to great pains not to use badr, and there is a psychological explanation for this: my peers and I doubtless remember dozens of tone-deaf, distasteful verses left to us by the poets of a bygone era who used the word badr so much they stripped it of its beauty, extinguishing its flame and leaving behind little more than their own shadows.

Perhaps this is what psychologists call “association” (and perhaps they have a different explanation for it),[4] and it has nothing to do with the reality of the situation. The important thing is that words rust and erode; they need to be replaced from time to time. And we have seen that this process of exchanging and replacing is the work of the writer, who carries it out while he is “half-conscious,” because complete consciousness rarely ever yields anything of value.


Let’s return to meter for a moment.

In this collection of poetry, there is a simple kind of “departure” from the customary rules in poems such as “The Woman who Gathers Shadows,” “Let’s Be Friends,” “Elegy for an Unimportant Day,” “Song of the Chasm,” and others. I should say here that I do not count myself among the poets with “sharp sensibilities” about whom I spoke earlier. I simply feel that this new style of ordering al-Khalil’s metrical feet can free the poet’s wings from a thousand restraints. In what follows, I will try to lay out the particularities of this style and why it is preferable to al-Khalil’s style. The following lines belong to the meter that al-Khalil called al-mutaqarib, “the tripping,” which contains only one foot, faʿulun, repeated four times in each hemistich (eight times in each complete line):

            يداك للمس النجوم

            ونسج الغيوم

يداك لجمع الظلال

وتشييد يوتوبيا في الرمال

Your hands touch the stars

weave the mists

Your hands gather dark

build utopia here in the sands.[5]

Now, if I had used the style of al-Khalil, could I have expressed my ideas with such brevity and facility? Certainly not. I would have been forced to complete each line with a second hemistich, thereby fabricating meanings different from and extraneous to what I originally intended, simply to fill up space. Perhaps the first line would have gone like this:

يداك للمس النجوم الوضاء               ونسج الغمائم ملء السماء

Your hands touch the stars shining bright

and weave fabric from clouds in the sky

The two-hemistich line does criminal injustice to the original image. Observe how we added the adjective “bright” (al-wadaʾ) to “stars” without any reason dictated by the meaning, but simply to fill out the first hemistich with its requisite four feet. See also how we replaced the expressive word “mists” (ghuyum) with the heavy synonym “clouds” (ghamaʾim) even though it doesn’t actually mean the same thing. Then there is this needless expression “in the sky” (malʾ al-samaʾ), which we have patched onto the image simply for the meter’s sake. Where our original intent was to create a gentle pause in the line’s music, with this expression we have actually given it crutches!

This is what happens when we work with the mutaqarib meter. If we choose the tawil (“long”) meter, however, the travesty becomes even worse. This meter elongates the crutches and widens the patches, such that the general idea of the line shrivels up and withers away:

يداك للمس النَّجْمِ أو نسج غيمة                      يسيِّرها الإعصار في كل مشرق

Your hands caress a star or weave a cloud,

blown round by tempests every day at dawn.[6]

The reader must notice the stupidity of the expression and the hardening of the image, as well as its distance from our first set of lines:

Your two hands touch the stars

and weave the mist

Your two hands gather dark

build utopia here in the sands.

We must also remember that this new style is not a departure from al-Khalil’s way, but rather a modification of his method, necessitated by the way ideas and styles have developed throughout the ages that separate us from al-Khalil. Al-Khalil made the pattern of the kamill or “perfect” meter run like this:

كفاي ترتعشان أين سكينتي؟             شفتاي تصطخبان أين هدوئي

(متفاعلن متفاعلن متفاعلن)              (متفاعلن متفاعلن متفاعلن)

My hands are trembling, where is my stillness?

My lips are clamoring, where is my silence?

(Mutafaʿilun mutafaʿilun, mutafaʿilun

Mutafaʿilun, mutafaʿilun, mutafaʿilun)

The meter is focused on the foot mutafaʿilun, which Arab poets are used to repeating three times in every hemistich. All we will do now is play with the number of feet and their arrangement in each line, such that the poem will sometimes follow the meter and sometimes not. Take, for example, this excerpt from the poem “Walls and Shadows:”

وهناك في الأعماق شيء جامد

حجزت بلادته المساء عن النهار

شيء رهيب بارد

خلف الستار

يدعى جدار

أواه لو هدم الجدار

Something solid lurks there in the deep

and its apathy hides day from night

something frightening and cold

cloaked in veils

called a wall

how I wish it would fall

If we metered these lines, they would run as follows:

متفاعلن متفاعلن متفاعلن

متفاعلن متفاعلن متفاعلن

متفاعلن متفاعلن



متفاعلن متفاعلن

Some/thing /so//lid lurks/ there// in/ the/ deep//               (3 rough anapests)

and/ its/ a//pa/thy /hides// day/ from/ night//                                              (3)

some/thing/ fright//ning/ and/ cold//                                                          (2)

cloaked/ in/ veils//                                                                                      (1)

called/ a/ wall//                                                                                           (1)

how/ I/ wish// it/ would/ fall//                                                                      (2)


The significance of this new model is that it liberates the poet from the tyranny of the two-hemistich line which, with its six fixed feet, forces the poet to cap off his words when the sixth foot arrives, even if the idea he wants to convey could be expressed in four. The new style, by contrast, allows him to stop wherever he wishes.


We must also speak about rhyme, this stone which clogs up every line of poetry composed in traditional prosody. It has been said that Arabic is a broad, rich language, and that this justifies its having been the only language that adopted mono-rhyme as a custom in its poetry. It is easy to forget, however, that no language, no matter how broad or rich, can create an “epic” that rhymes on a single letter, no matter which letter it is. Those who extol the richness of Arabic do not realize that this is one of the reasons why there are no epics in Arabic literature, unlike in the literatures of its neighbors, the Persians and Greeks.

This is not the place to discuss the heavy losses that mono-rhyme has inflicted on Arabic poetry throughout the many eras of the past. What I do want to stress, however, is that this form of rhyme gives the poem a monotonous quality that bores the listener and makes him feel that the poet has overworked his lines in his desperate hunt for rhymes. Mono-rhyme has most certainly strangled many poets’ sensibilities and buried innumerable ideas (maʿani) alive in their hearts. This is because in true poetry, “musicality is special, and Arabic poetry is almost all musical.”[7] Poetry can only be born from the first burst of feeling in the poet’s heart, and this burst is likely to dry up at the first impediment to cross its path, like a dream from which a sleeper quickly wakes. Mono-rhyme has always been this impediment. No sooner has the poet felt the poetic trance-state descend upon him, grabbed his pen, and begun writing some lines, than the fruits of his labor begin to calcify with stilted rhymes. He must divide his mind between the diametrically opposed tasks of expressing his feeling and thinking about rhyme. Soon the trance-state has left him, and its spontaneity is gone. The poet is merely sorting words into lines and arranging rhymes without feeling. This is why, in our ancient literature, we rarely find poems with a single, unifying meaning, or poems dominated by a single expressive atmosphere from beginning to end. The poet is forced to fabricate rhyme, and I know many poets who choose a rhyme first and then write lines in conformity with it—proof that rhyme, this jealous goddess, exercises a tyrannical rule over our work.

Fortunately, our contemporary poets have lessened the power of rhyme and departed from it by using the quatrain and other forms. Such forms of versification have even become widely accepted, for the most part. There is no longer any objection to the rhymes in this poetry collection, for example, though I admit that I have sometimes played with my rhymes more than others. In the poem “Nails,” for example, the rhyme scheme is: ABA BCB CDC DED EFE… etc. In the poem “Ashes,” I have used the quatrain form, making the rhyme scheme ABBA. In “Strangers,” I have used the “stanza” form,[8] so the rhyme in every stanza is as follows: AABBAB. As for the poem “Cholera,” the stanzas in it are slightly longer than custom dictates, and they rhyme as follows: ABBCCBDBEEEE. Elsewhere, I have liberated several poems from rhyme completely, as in “The Train Passed By,” “The End of the Stairs,” “Fairy Tales,” “Walls and Shadows,” and others. In these last poems, I have left the rhymes to repeat as the context dictates, rather than making them conform to a set pattern. Perhaps this is the last step separating this kind of verse from “Blank Verse.”[9] As for the poem “The Angry Wound,” I should point out that its novel way of arranging rhymes is based on the style of the American poet Edgar Allan Poe in his innovative poem “Ulalume.”


I have said that the Arabic language does not yet have the power to give new life, because its writers and its poets have only recently learned how to make the best use of the powers hidden behind words (alfaz). Throughout the many centuries of the “dark,” stagnant period, words were only used to denote their most common meanings (maʿani). This may explain the Arab masses’ strong tendency to reject those poetic schools that rely on the revivifying strength of words—such as Symbolism and Surrealism—believing that these schools overload language with symbols, ineffable emotions, detours of the subconscious, and dreams with hidden meanings. Such things can only be expressed in a language that has reached the pinnacle of its development.

The reality is that the Arab reader flees from Symbolist poetry because when the language is faced with the prospect of expressing such obscure feelings, it resists at first, and it is not strange that it should hesitate. But to explain this situation by saying that the “Arab mind,” in its very nature, flees from symbols and finds no beauty in the tortuous corridors that wind behind the senses, or in hidden worlds that are difficult to apprehend—this is something that I personally do not believe. For the human soul in general is not clear; it is always wrapped in a thousand veils. And it often happens that the self expresses itself in indirect, tortuous ways governed by thousands of half-effaced memories that have lurked in the depths of the rational mind, hidden for years and years. The soul might speak in hundreds of fleeting images that the conscious, rational mind dismisses, but that the hidden mind seizes upon and stows away like buried treasure, along with millions of other passing images it has locked up in hidden rooms. Then, when it senses a lapse in the conscious mind, it releases this treasure in a stream of formless, indistinct images.

These strange feelings are not peculiar to any one person more than another; it is only the ability to express them that differs. A regular person sees them in his dreams. An artist, however, expresses them in both his art and his dreams. It is not strange, for example, to wake up in the middle of the night having dreamed of running barefoot through an old tunnel that was part of a house you used to live in and that we haven’t seen in person for eighteen years. Yet despite not having seen the house in all this time, in the dream you notice the same minute, trivial, half-effaced details that you saw in bygone years—like that crooked old nail in the wall, with the same pale old thread still dangling from it. And there, a few meters up, the water pipe you used to climb as a child. As I said, we do not find these things strange in a dream, so why can’t we accept when a poet describes them in a poem? The true poet is one who observes himself attentively, as though he were monitoring a surging, limitless, bottomless sea. He cannot flee from such faint, faded images, because they follow him always and everywhere, and he must describe them in his poetry. Obscurity is essential to the life of the human soul; we cannot avoid confronting it if we want an art that describes and touches the soul in all its particularity.

And yet obscurity is not an end in itself, but rather one of many forms that life can take. For this reason, it is rare to find a poet who writes exclusively complex, ambiguous verse. As for those who intentionally aim for complexity in their poetry, Aldous Huxley requested forgiveness for them when he said that contemporary writers and artists flee into obscurity in fear of the obviousness that is the fundamental characteristic of popular literature.[10]

In explaining Surrealist and Symbolist forms of expression in this way, I do not aim to say that a portion of the poems in this collection belongs to this or that school. Rather, I want to clear space for the kinds of poems that deal with the states of the hidden self at times, and with the subconscious at others. These are states of mind into which Arabic poetry has ventured only very rarely in its long history, choosing instead to focus on the external behaviors of mankind.

In my poem “The Thread That was Tied to the Cypress Tree,” for example, I tried to paint a poetic image of the feelings and thoughts passing through the mind of a young man who has just heard news of his lover’s death. You will notice that the love story in this poem is secondary to the thread tied to the tree and the afflicted young man’s distraction, in the state of internal chaos that has befallen him. The conflict of the poem is built around the state of mind that descends on a person who hears devastating, tragic, and unexpected news. He is deeply distracted, as though he hasn’t heard the news at all. He looks around, and his eyes fixate on the first trivial thing they see. He is submerged in thinking about it. The trivial thing in this poem is the thread tied to the cypress tree next to the door. The devastated mind is occupied with thinking about this thread, and it continues to be occupied until his conscious mind reawakens and brings home the gravity of the tragedy that has befallen him.

The reader will also not find anything provocative in the poem “The Train Passed By” if he expects to find in it a description of a train or a journey by train. My main intention in writing this poem was to express the vague feelings of a person traveling in the third-class car of a train at night. There is the state of utter exhaustion in which a person finds himself in that situation, mixed with a kind of languor and slackening. There is the monotonous sound of the train wheels that never changes, and the color of the dust that covers everything, suitcases, faces, and clothing. There is the sight of the other travelers, strangers whom the train car has gathered into rows. And the train whistles from time to time, causing strange feelings in the soul. And yet despite all of this, silence fills the train car, as most of the passengers in it sleep sitting up in their seats. And from time to time, a strange and unknown traveler suddenly yawns or asks coldly and distractedly, “What time is it?” or “When do we arrive?” or “Where are we?” or something similar. If the reader of “The Train Passed By” feels something of this environment, that is enough for me.

In the poem “The Viper,” by contrast, I tried to express the occasional, vague feeling that one is being chased by a great, unfathomable power. This power is often an agglomeration of sad memories or regrets, or something we hate about ourselves, or a frightening image we have seen and cannot forget, or the soul with all of its desires and weaknesses and uncertainties, or anything else, depending on the reader. This doesn’t mean that I am describing my own personal “vipers” in the poem; this is a secondary concern. The important thing, rather, is the idea that this viper continually chases after us, and that it is futile to flee, such that we are driven into a “Labyrinth” of thought,[11] that maze which a person enters and finds he cannot leave, so complex are its paths and so numerous its doors, until he begins to use the method of autosuggestion, as I wrote in the poem:

            إنه لن يجيء

            لن يجيء وإن عبر المستحيل

            أبدا لن يجيء

No, it will not come.

It will not come, even if it crosses the impossible

it will never come.

The final result is that the “viper” does indeed come in the end, and we quickly scream out, “It has come!”

In the poem “Fairy Tales,” meanwhile, the reader will find what I feel—and what many other people probably also feel—whenever silence fills a place. When this happens, we begin to hear with the ear of the spirit, and the objects lying motionless around us tell a thousand stories. The fence speaks and revives all of its pale, dead memories, and “stories written on pages torn to shreds by ruin” tell moving tales of times long gone and forgotten. “Dust” and “chairs in ancient rooms” tell of a generation of people who lived among them for a day then moved on into distant, unknown horizons. And so on, such that a sensitive person cannot see anything around him without hearing its murmured, whispered speech.


I believe that Arabic poetry today is at the brink of a decisive, powerful development that will leave nothing of the old styles in its wake. The rules of all of the old meters, rhymes, and schools will be shaken to their core, and language will expand to include new horizons with fuller powers of expression. Poems will delve quickly and directly into the interior of the soul, whereas before they tended to revolve around it at a distance. I say this after having carefully studied the trajectory of our contemporary poetry, and I say it because it is the logical result of our willingness to read European literatures and study the latest theories of philosophy, art, and psychology. The reality of the situation is that those who want to unite modern culture with the traditions of ancient poetry are like those who try to live a contemporary life while wearing the clothing of the first century of Islam. We are facing a choice: either we learn these new theories, allow ourselves to be influenced by them, and implement them for ourselves, or we don’t learn them at all.

We would do well to remember that developments in the arts and humanities across history have almost always grown out of contact between two or more nations. The sensibilities of a specific nation can die out and lie dormant for many centuries as a result of specific circumstances. Subsequently, a vigorous and energetic time comes to wake that nation from its sleep, and it begins to move, bustle, and stir restlessly, staring at the world around it and starting to incorporate the cultures that have come into contact with it. It begins to benefit from the experiences of a nearby nation that remained productive and continued to add new, illuminating chapters to the book of human thought. No sooner has a half century passed than the dormant nation has ended its period of assimilation and begun to pick up where the productive nation left off. It begins to augment the products of its neighbors. This is the way development has always worked in the history of nations, such that no school of thought, invention, or theory pioneered by one nation has not benefitted from the experiences of others.

The last thing I want to say in this introduction is that I deeply and fervently believe in the future of Arabic poetry. I believe that it is pushing forward—with all the strength, inspiration, and possibility embedded in our poets’ hearts—to occupy a prominent place in world literature.

A thousand greetings to the poets of tomorrow.


Translation by Emily Drumsta


[Diacritics available upon request. Editor]

[1] Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi (718-786 CE), an early Arabic lexicographer and philologist who is credited with standardizing Arabic prosody or ʿarud. [Translator’s note]

[2] These are the opening words of two pre-Islamic “hanging odes” or muʿallaqat by Imruʾ al-Qays and Kaʿb ibn Zuhayr, respectively. The odes are some of the most revered poems in the Arabic literary tradition. [Tr.]

[3] The word al-Malaʾika uses for “words” here is alfaz, which can also mean “expressions” or “turns of phrase.” The term (most often paired with maʿna, “mental content,” in Alexander Key’s rendering) is notoriously difficult to translate and has a long history in the Arabic science of rhetoric (ʿilm al-balagha). See Lara Harb, “Form, Content, and the Inimitability of the Qurʾan in ʿAbd al-Qahir al-Jurjani’s works,” Middle Eastern Literatures 18, no. 3 (2015): 301-21 and Alexander Key, Language Between God and the Poets: Maʿna in the Eleventh Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018), especially Chapter 3. The phrase I have translated as “adding new meaning” is idafat maʿna. [Tr.]

[4] The word “Association” is written out in Latin characters in the original. [Tr.]

[5] The lines in Arabic contain a single foot—faʿulun, the base foot of the mutaqarib meter—repeated an irregular number of times in each line: line 1=three feet, line 2=two feet, line 3=three feet, line 4=four feet. I have tried to replicate the foot meter with rough anapests in English. The Arabic lines rhyme AABB. [Tr.]

[6] The tawil or “long” meter is one of the most highly regarded and widely used in classical Arabic poetry (particularly in the pre-Islamic “hanging odes” or muʿallaqat). Unlike the mutaqarib, the tawil meter combines two feet in its pattern as follows: faʿulun mafaʿilun faʿulun mafaʿilun (caesura) faʿulun mafaʿilun faʿulun mafaʿilun. To replicate the social function and centrality of the tawil meter in English, I have used a rough iambic pentameter. [Tr.]

[7] The quote is unattributed in the original. [Tr.]

[8] “Stanza” is written out in Latin characters in the original. [Tr.]

[9] “Blank Verse” is written out in Latin characters in the original. [Tr.]

[10] A reference to Aldous Huxley’s essay, “Sincerity in Art,” from the volume On Art and Artists (1960) [Tr.]

[11] Written out in Latin characters in the original [Tr.]


The Medieval Beginnings of Italian Poetry Today

In the fall of 2001, when I was a Ph.D. student at Stanford, I took part in a seminar taught by Sepp [Gumbrecht] and Brigitte Cazelles, entitled “The Medieval Beginnings of Western Poetry.” It was, without a doubt, an event-inducing seminar. At that point, I still thought, ridiculously, that I might want to be a modernist (though it was also around this time that Robert [Harrison] had begun to ask me if I was sure that I didn’t want to work on Dante). This seminar, with its gorgeous intellectual pairing of Sepp and Brigitte, convinced me that medieval studies was in fact the most dynamic, most vital area of study. I remember vividly how exciting it was when I first heard Sepp talk through his notion of an oscillation between presence effects and meaning effects in the early lyric poems we were considering. I remember studying rhyme with a close attention I had never before brought to bear upon a text. That sensation of a discovery, of an event happening just now, right here in the room where we are all seated together, around a suitable table, of course, is one of Sepp’s great gifts.

I think all of us here will agree that there is no adequate way to thank Sepp for his generosity with gifts of this magnitude, so what I’d like to offer now is a small tracing of some ways in which his thought on presence, atmosphere, and mood is reverberating in Italian medieval studies of late. It almost goes without saying that Italian medieval studies has until very recently generally not engaged with notions of presence, atmosphere, and mood. While Occitan scholars like Marisa [Galvez], for instance, are accustomed to working with notions of music, song, orality, and thus thinking necessarily about textual forms as physical realities that envelop bodies, Italian medievalists often claim to work with texts that have always been silent. In a series of interventions over the first decade of the 21st century, Maria Sofia Lannutti has presented a long-overdue critique of the so-called “divorce hypothesis,” according to which the Italian lyric tradition of the 13th century developed in a distinct way compared to other vernacular literatures by virtue of a “divorce” between music and text. It is, she suggests very convincingly, an idea with strongly nationalist 19th-century origins. But somehow, it gained immense traction as it was subsequently taken up by prominent 20th-century Italian literary critics.[1] Thus scholars have long felt free to treat early Italian lyric as silent-reading texts. Only very recently have scholars begun to consider these texts as in any way related to music, oral culture or performance.  There is a massive amount of work still to be done.

One new direction this work has recently been taking in the UK and in Italy is in attention to laude, an early form of paraliturgical religious poetry, set to music and composed in the vernacular. The laude developed in mid-13th-century Tuscany and Umbria out of the praise psalms used in the Morning Office. Considerations of the sung laude force attention to vernacular poetry that is embedded in and indeed arises from devotional practice or performance. The laude cannot be divorced from their lived contexts. But in addition to being an intriguing subject of study in themselves, I wonder if it’s possible for the study of laude to point the way to rethinking our approaches to other early Italian vernacular poetry?

Of course, for Italians, the poet who most divides is Dante. And indeed, there are (at least) two Dantes. There is the popular Dante, who is always performed. From the earliest days of the poem’s existence, there is a folk tradition of non-academics who can recite entire cantos of the Comedy. You can, to this day, find barbers who will recite all of Inferno 26 for you. And the professional Dante scholars squirm slightly. Or think of Roberto Benigni’s performances of Dante, in piazze and on television. 10 million people tuned in to listen to his recitation of Paradiso 33. And most Dante scholars, of course, turned up their noses. Dante scholars aren’t particularly interested, usually, in that fact that there is something about hearing Dante performed that affects even those who don’t understand all the words.

And yet it was perhaps the most famous Dante scholar, Gianfranco Contini, who wrote of Dante’s memorabilità. Why is the poetry particularly memorable? Why did Primo Levi have it so ready to his ear and to his lips, even in Auschwitz?[2] How might the sort of critical tuning to prosody, to the textual dimension of the form of the poem that so particularly touches us, as from the inside, that Sepp proposes, help us to bridge the popular Dante and the scholarly one?

Contini speaks about Dante’s use of ‘figure ritmiche.’ Or, as Ryan Pepin calls it in as yet unpublished work, ‘rhythmic conditions.’ And here, in invoking the ongoing work of very new Dante scholars, I propose a turn to the future, visible perhaps in the newest generation of scholars of medieval poetry. Pepin suggests that taken as a claim about a technique of formulaic diction, Contini comes very close to the assertion that Dante is an oral poet—that is, a poet for whom rhythm and memory or memorability are a compositional site. And this would change utterly how we speak about Dante, and bring to view in the poem a process of rhythmical transformation as the condition of its ‘thought.’ The difficulty of this mode of thinking is that, Pepin claims, “a poetry for which memory is the force of composition affects the grammar of criticism.... Speculation on the poet’s mind with a view to how he intends, or is motivated to re-use, shapes of language, continues because poetry that is spontaneous and unreflective is difficult to write criticism about.” This is pretty radical stuff. And I’m not sure that I have fully come around to a notion of Dante who is spontaneous and unreflective. But Pepin (with Contini) is right that in our practice as Dante scholars, we must also take into consideration rhythm, memory, and memorability, as not simply by-products, or sound-effects, but as constitutive of the poem and how it interacts with us.

It becomes a question of crediting rhythmical units, and the moods they embody, with compositional force, triggering recalls from one site in the text to another, and from one site in the text to certain extra-textual sites in the real world. Why should Dante’s vision of God “sempre dintorno al punto che mi vinse,” reverberate so audibly with “ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse;” the infernal encapsulation of succumbing to lust? The sensation evoked is surrender, recalled here through the very rhythm of the line that draws a certain sensibility with it from its infernal precedent, a sensuality that lingers as a condition of love, both divine and fallen.

Helena Phillips-Robins, in an article published in 2017 and in a forthcoming book, has been examining how Dante, like Boccaccio, sets frameworks of atmosphere for reception and recitation.[3] Dante sometimes does it rather more surreptitiously. But she has argued, for instance, that when Dante embeds bits of Psalms within his poem, these embeddings correspond with liturgical practice of the time that would prompt certain forms of engagement. There are a number of moments in the poem, she suggests, when Dante might expect us to stop reading and to sing a complete psalm. The liturgical fragments embedded in the poem evoke atmospheres of reception that connect to spaces, to music, and to practices outside the text. Through her work on 13th-century Tuscan ordinals, Phillips-Robins has discovered that for a Florentine, the psalm that Dante refers to at the opening of Purgatorio would be the one sung during the Easter procession from the cathedral to the baptistry. So while Dante scholars have long belaboured the meaning of the reference to the psalm as having to do with the allegory of the poem, Phillips-Robins’s work shows how the text evokes lived practice and precise physical spaces and places, like the baptistry of San Giovanni, and the sound and feel of walking that specific distance while singing Psalm 113.

As Sepp notes, this sort of work is always vulnerable to criticisms of the speculative or the subjective. Whether we think about rhythmic evocation of mood as a mode of composition or whether we consider readers of the Comedy as, necessarily, singers, we have in either case strayed far from the safety of silent reading. To conclude, while it’s obvious that I and others who have had the privilege to work directly with Sepp would naturally be attuned to questions of presence and atmosphere, what I find particularly exciting is the way that the next generation, the generation of young scholars that I have the privilege to work with now, is so engaged with these riskful ways of working, seeking out ways of investigating sound or precise details and condition. It is precisely these sorts of risks that can reclaim the vitality of medieval literary studies today and in the future.



[1] See, for example Maria Sofia Lannutti, "Intertestualità, imitazione metrica e melodia nella lirica romanza delle Origini," Medioevo romanzo 32, no. 1 (2008): 3-28.

[2] See Primo Levi, Se questo è un uomo (Turin: Einaudi, 2005) pp. 98-103.

[3] Helena Phillips-Robins, “‘Cantavan tutti insieme ad una voce’: Singing and Community in the Commedia,” Italian Studies 71 (2016): 4-20.

What is Semantic Criticism? A Taxonomy Past and Present

The present moment sees a momentum around the project of semantic criticism. As a durable model for literary studies that has refrained from the hegemonic gestures of labels but at the same time has never entirely gone out of fashion, semantic criticism is not so much a coherent program as a set of practices that must be reinvented by every generation. Moreover, it lacks a commonly acknowledged genealogical story: in fact, its history as a method is often seen only through a few models whose relation to recent criticism may be imagined or aspirational more than anything else. In my view, a productive turn toward semantics in criticism depends on our knowing its past and distinguishing among the models provided by Raymond Williams, William Empson, C. S. Lewis, Theodor Adorno, Reinhart Koselleck, Martin Jay, and others. It's not recognized enough that these available models are not only very different from each other but make imperfect guides for future work; they speak to the eras and assumptions for which they were conceived, but the present requires, and we ought to demand, a semantic criticism of our time. In the brief remarks that follow, without the scope to produce a genealogy, I set out a provisional taxonomy with some questions about the method and a conversation with some of the essays in this Colloquy.

As Anston Bosman presciently observed during the session at the 2018 MLA Convention for which this essay originated, this is the age of keywords. Every year brings several new books on keywords: keywords for cultural studies, media and writing studies, Latinx and Asian-American studies, sound, children's literature, and disability studies. There are period-based conferences and projects (nineteenth-century keywords and so on) and at least one international research project on early modern keywords. Among all this exertion, it's seldom recognized that semantic criticism can be more than the study of keywords or how some of the most intriguing models fashion a broader field. There are at least three strands to this work.

One model other than keywords involves what might be called axial reading, or the kind of criticism that ranges deeply or widely in search of semantic information. Reading along what we might call the vertical axis has sometimes been associated with an inimitable, highly personal criticism: thus a deep dive into single words considered more or less in isolation is the project of Empson's idiosyncratic chapters in The Structure of Complex Words (1951), where he grants words such as honest, man, and dog a great deal of autonomy from their historical contexts and from each other. Empson seeks after "feelings" and "statements" in words as well as the factors that condition them, for instance as "moods" color feelings and "implications" affect statements. Instead of what we now consider a historical context, Empson appeals to something more subjective and inchoate: "a poet no doubt is not building an intellectual system; if you like the phrase, he feels the thoughts which are in the air . . . [;] or he is recording a time when his mind was trying out an application of the thoughts, not proving a doctrine about them" (6-7). Few critics would write like this now, because of not what seems an unashamed impressionism but the serious purpose it masks, a single-minded attention to words as compacting meanings on meanings on a vertical axis, as corpses are found one over another in a single grave. Many critics today might find such a project impressively thorough but somehow incomplete; we draw the boundaries of our work differently now. Still, for the sake of a taxonomy, these are bravura demonstrations of close reading by a founding figure of the New Criticism, with words rather than poems as the objects of analysis.

A corresponding instance of reading along the horizontal axis occurs in several projects in the digital humanities that permit browsing of corpora, literary and otherwise and produce line-charts to show usage and sometimes go under the name of culturomics, after a paper in Science that coined the term; most of these projects are founded on the Google Ngram Viewer introduced in 2010, which enables searches of words and phrases in the vast Google Books collection of texts in several languages. The historian Benjamin Schmidt's Bookworm is a prominent example of a platform built on such a viewer to search not only books but newspapers and television scripts. Both the deep and wide varieties of axial reading are necessarily incomplete because of their compromises over representativeness—in the case of Empsonian deep reading, where the reach of the corpus is entirely contingent on one reader's knowledge—and over import, in the case of quantitative surveys that often cannot discern one usage from another, those written and read in obscurity versus those, like the usages of a Shakespeare, that may alter the course of a word's semantic purchase.

A second strand of semantic criticism is at once empirical and philological. The critic notices a semantic feature in the weave of a text and pulls at a loose thread: as C.S. Lewis explains the process in Studies in Words (1960), "the smallest semantic discomfort rouses his suspicions. He notes the key word and watches for its recurrence in other texts. Often they will explain the whole puzzle" (5). At length a structure of meanings becomes legible, and the method the critic applies to elucidating that structure is based in philology. Lewis writes that "the philologist's dream is to diagrammatise all the meanings of a word so as to have a perfect semantic tree of it; every twig traced to its branch, every branch traced back to the trunk" (9). This impulse toward schemes of relation and ramification seems different from the motives of what I was calling axial reading: to mention just one feature, philological reading places a premium on the kind of contextual conditions that maintain every meaning in its place in relation to others, the shape of the tree so to speak. Lewis calls this "the insulating power of the context," and like other philologically inclined critics he is concerned with registering that power as much as with observing any strictly semantic force that inheres in the words themselves. Where Lewis confronts Empson, the differences have to do with what he perceives as Empson's inattention to the ramifications of the word wit even in a single poem, Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism. Empson having brilliantly elucidated a dominant, vivid sense of the word in action—wit as the "power to make ingenious (and critical) jokes" (85)—Lewis argues that he has not noticed other senses (for example, wit as ingenium) that are rooted in the history of the language and have their own roles to play in the poem (93). The philological critic inevitably sees axial readings, whether vertical and deep or horizontal and wide, as two-dimensional and therefore, despite their strengths as virtuosic and comprehensive respectively, as fatally incomplete. Among the philological critics I'm drawn especially to Leo Spitzer's Essays in Historical Semantics (1948) and his book on stimmung as examples of empirical observation that conclude in searching contextualization.

The third strand of semantic criticism, of course, is the most famous as well as the one that many readers believe to be the only extant method, as though the axial and philological readings were merely versions of it. This is what I call historicist reading, demonstrated in Raymond Williams' Keywords of 1976, which was first conceived as part of his book Culture and Society, but also seen in different versions in Martin Jay's Cultural Semantics: Keywords of Our Time (1998), Reinhart Koselleck's essays in Begriffsgeschichte (collected in English as The Practice of Conceptual History, 2002), and a few other practices. This kind of reading is concerned with words or concepts that embody historical periods or encode historical change. Keywords—the words or concepts themselves—tend to be self-evidently important in a cultural sense: as Williams puts it, they are, like culture (his original keyword), class, art, industry, and democracy, both "significant, binding words in certain activities and their interpretation [and] significant, indicative words in certain forms of thought" (15). While few of us could write definitions as rich as those in Williams' book, many readers can bring to these words an idea of their semantic history and contours; we have generally heard them treated as representative in settings other than semantic criticism, and one can imagine treating them as items in an exam for a course on certain periods (industry for the nineteenth century, democracy for the twentieth). Moreover, keywords tend to manifest a sense of mutual relation even before we have fully investigated them. When Williams narrates how his book came about, he observes of culture, class, art, industry, and democracy that "I could feel these five words as a kind of structure. The relations between them became more complex the more I considered them" (13). If the other strands of semantic criticism run the risks of producing analysis that is unrepresentative, indiscriminate, and overly schematic, then historicist reading of the keywords sort faces a danger that is hardly ever acknowledged by the promoters of keywords: that of tautology, or granting substance to a semantic feature or narrative that is implicit in the current usages of the word, in effect staging the analysis as an elaboration of the word itself and telling us what we already know. While Williams generally avoids tautology through feats of interpretive acumen, some of the recent work that derives from his method doesn't fare so well.

What in my work I have called critical semantics stands apart from these three strands of analysis, although it should preserve elements of all of them: the social and cultural significance found in historicist reading, the attention to context indispensable to philological reading, the access to information available through the databases central to horizontal reading, and finally the scope for critical risk-taking that validates vertical reading. This last element, which cannot be supplied by method but must be contributed by each particular critic, drew me toward the adjective "critical" in giving a name to critical semantics. I wanted to name the method I was demonstrating but resist the promotional attitude that appears in names such as the New Philology and the New Formalism.

The most salient difference between critical semantics and what precedes it is in the nature of the objects themselves: I make a distinction between keywords and working words, or the everyday terms that populated my book and that appear here and there throughout semantic criticism. Working words are the ones that people live and think with, as opposed to those that self-consciously represent the age; working words are so multivalent that we don't necessarily see the shape in their semantics, nor do they always seem to tell a common story. They may be rooted in mutually exclusive disciplines, as blood in the sixteenth century belongs to the disappearing context of chivalry, the emerging context of race theory, and two versions of physiology, one obsolescent and one quickened by new discoveries such as circulation. Moreover, where working words are concerned the databases supply us with too many examples. One compares a working word such as Empson's honest or Lewis's simple or my language to a keyword such as nature or human and despairs that an intelligible story may ever be found. (I like Empson's remark about Wordsworth: "there are of course 'key' words like Nature and Imagination, and these may in reality be very puzzling, but he seems to be making a sturdy effort to expound them in discursive language. The apparently flat little word sense has I think a more curious part to play" [289].) Working words are often "flat" or overloaded, unobtrusive or noisy. And they are everywhere.

After the words themselves are identified, critical semantics depends for its unfolding on what I call, following Kenneth Burke in A Grammar of Motives (1945), a representative anecdote that offers the broad outline of a word's changes. As Burke envisions it, the "calculus" that produces an anecdote "must be supple and complex enough to be representative of the subject-matter it is designed to calculate. It must have scope. Yet it must also possess simplicity, in that it is broadly a reduction of the subject-matter" (60). A semantic anecdote should persuade readers that the critic's account is worth entertaining at least provisionally, while in the self-conscious, provisional quality of its framing it exposes the reading at hand to critique as potentially inadequate in any number of ways. In any case, the anecdote puts the critic's version of the word as a dynamic event into play in a way that some other methods (such as the stratified, dictionary-style definitions sometimes found in keyword projects) often do not. Calling attention to itself as a narrative, the anecdote invites disagreement and courts risk.

And finally, the third element of critical semantics is the provision of a conceit to explain how the senses of a word relate to one another: I choose to envision words according to the physical properties of objects that were invented or widely known contemporaneously with the words themselves, such as in the sixteenth century, the envelope for blood, the palimpsest for invention, and the engine for world. I am not much interested in the material things as such, but only in how they permit us to imagine semantic change as experienced and felt. Once we have understood tongue and language as (what I call) pendents to each other, like keys on a ring or pearls on a string, the idea goes, we might be able to apply that kind of relation to other terms of the period such as troth and truth. If it is assumed that the haptic nature of the conceits carries an explanatory power, this is perhaps an expedient concession to the multifarious character of working words, a way of explaining them in light of the everyday that honors their homeliness and ubiquity.

Considering how prevalent keyword criticism remains, it will seem funny for me to say that I believe it to be a relic of another era. Its survival, I think, rests on an unreflective reduction of semantic criticism to this approach. Of course there is a place for keywords in the genre of reference, where a concise account of conventional views can get a beginner ready to think more boldly (or discreetly refresh the knowledge of a non-beginner). But in criticism, I'm convinced that an attention to working words reflects the tone of the present, when digital databases that show a wide range of usages have the potential to call into doubt the significance and inevitability of any keyword. Some of the most suggestive criticism now, such as Philip Lorenz's book on sovereignty, obliterates the distinction between keywords and working words, these alternative objects, by treating even the most durable keywords as deserving an anecdote that can be modified, augmented, and challenged in usages. Perhaps most urgent to the present is the imperative for the critic to find a voice in which to tell a semantic story that is authoritative but open to change. My experiment in critical semantics is in considerable measure an attempt to summon such a voice for our moment—the age of the Google Ngram Viewer and Wikipedia, in which the critic and her or his readers face the challenge of having access to more information than Empson or Lewis ever imagined.

Five Words is only an experiment, however, and it raises several issues it raises without quite answering them. The papers first presented at the 2018 MLA Convention and now gathered in this Colloquy remind us that there are still other questions, practices, and challenges that go well past what I conceived in that book. Let me conclude by addressing each of the papers briefly in turn.

I admire Debapriya Sarkar's crisp account of how utopian was "an extraordinary word that became ordinary, a particular term that became general, and a reference to a physical place that became an idea." The most insightful gesture of her argument is to suggest how the notion of hypothesis and the hypothetical shadows the semantics of utopian in the period, such that "utopian embodies a hypothetical ontology, a concept of nonexistence." Hypothetical thinking needs a body in which to be represented, Debapriya tells us, and as "utopian" becomes that body, it also becomes ordinary, unspecialized, and finally the everyday word we all recognize. The important questions at the end of Debapriya's paper—e.g. how do words become ordinary?—are already answered in outline, though naturally not in detail, in her paper, which tells a compact story of how a word changes from its inception within the sixteenth century through its emergence in the modern lexicon.

Vin Nardizzi makes a good case for grafting as a semantic node where writing, sexuality, and acculturation come together; he raises the inevitable question as to what conceit would permit us to envision the relation among these fields and their semantic evocation of "work, plants, nature, art, magic, poetry, rhetoric, sex, marriage, queerness, rank, and race." To me his analysis implies that graft may be both the word and the conceit that organizes its meanings—an intriguing example of a semantic event that does what Della Porta says about trees, "every [meaning] mutually incorporated into each other."

Crystal Bartolovich reminds us that words are made not only of meanings but of the standpoints from which they are spoken—she calls them "accents," and gives us the anecdote from a volume of 1660 in which three figures—a wealthy landowner, a country man, and the King—trade perspectives on the word common. In five usages over about 120 words, the word is heard to advance the material interests of the two principal antagonists, the wealthy man and the commoner, until the King steps in to "restore" the word, and the place it names, to what it was before enclosure. Anecdotes like this one are not unusual in the period, of course; there's a memorable one in Deloney's Thomas of Reading (in which King Henry I grants three wishes to the clothiers of England) and other middle-class and craft fictions of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. But before Crystal offered this example I hadn't developed in my own work an account of how semantics can be the explicit vehicle for the confrontation of class positions, and how the narrative itself can foreground the word—here, common—as the staging-ground of the conflict and its resolution. She is right to draw our renewed attention to words as inflected by the accents of class, gender, region, and other positions in early modern society.

Finally, John Casey explains how the term color, often seemingly empty of meaning in itself, is thoroughly instrumentalized to capture the intersection of internal (that is, mental and experiential) states and external reality; early modern observers see the world as colored, think of their own thoughts in terms of color, and treat the interpretation of the former by the latter as involving a language of color, as in figures of speech that are "colors" of rhetoric. As a working word, then, is color perhaps "too ubiquitous," as John wonders? His implied answer to his own question is that the challenges of understanding a word that can name subjects, objects, and the ground between them are necessary and even urgent to the development of a critical semantics. The very notion of an explanatory conceit in Five Words could be taken to assume that the word in question should be as graspable as an object; what if instead the word defines boundaries, is both everywhere and fugitive at the same time? Further, John argues that that development must involve "push[ing] beyond both semantic and historical concerns," which might mean considering the visual and material arts as well as other fields that were outside my conception of critical semantics. This important paper reminds me that what started as a renovative experiment for literary studies might well end up bringing a semantically aware dimension to other disciplines, not only intellectual history as in the work of Quentin Skinner or Martin Jay but art history, music, or history of science.

My current project, a conceptual study of the Baroque in Europe and the colonial world, begins with a problem for critical semantics: in the seventeenth century, there is no general term for the kind of art that breaks surfaces, courts asymmetry and incommensurability, and exposes its own workings in a gesture of self-contradiction. The term Baroque comes into usage only later. In the seventeenth century, then, what do practitioners and observers call the Baroque? I see this opening question as an occasion not only to apply critical semantics to a perennial subject of literary history but to complicate the movement of Five Words by starting from a semantic absence, finding some of the many words that name the Baroque and envisioning the relation among them. I expect to share some of my discoveries in this Colloquy.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. "Words from Abroad. " In Notes to Literature. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. 1:185-99.

Empson, William. The Structure of Complex Words. London: Chatto and Windus, 1951.

Greene, Roland. Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Jay, Martin. Cultural Semantics: Keywords of Our Time. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Koselleck, Reinhart. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Trans. Keith Tribe. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

—. The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts. Trans. Todd Samuel Presner et al. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Lewis, C. S. Studies in Words. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Lorenz, Philip. The Tears of Sovereignty: Perspectives of Power in Renaissance Drama. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.

Michel, Jean-Baptiste, et al. "Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books." Science 16 December 2010: 1199644.

Spitzer, Leo. Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony: Prolegomena to an Interpretation of the Word "Stimmung." Ed. Anna Granville Hatcher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1963.

—. Essays in Historical Semantics. New York: Russell and Russell, 1948.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Rev ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.