Moretti, “The Soul and the Harpy”

Moretti, Franco. “The Soul and the Harpy.” Signs Taken For Wonders: On the Sociology of Literary Forms. 1983. Trans. David Forgacs. New York: Verso, 2005.

This chapter offers much that deserves a slower, more careful going-over than my notes here attempt. Moretti’s aim is to position literary criticism and historiography squarely within rhetoric and, by doing so, to carve out a space for a sociology of literary forms in which everything (i.e., mass literature) is counted. This counting, it would seem, runs very close to a scientific imperative complete with empirical rationalism. But it’s not quite that simple. What Moretti calls for here comes more as a blend between “genre as social action” and a Latourian sociology of associations–an examination of the ways select literary genres “secure consent” (27).

Moretti is in favor of literary historiography that, rather than working with what real historians would call “an imaginary object, ” works instead with “critical interpretations” that are testable and also falsifiable (21). He writes, “an extra-literary phenomenon is never more or less important as a possible ‘object’ or ‘content’ of a text, but because of its impact on systems of evaluation and, therewith, on rhetorical strategies” (20). Still, this is not set up to trivialize the explanatory power of extra-literary phenomenon; the sociology of literary forms offers a restorative gesture that wrenches form from a pure, organic association with nature, and repositions it in the rhetorical middle–between reality (scientism and strict referentiality) and poetry (pleasure, imagination)–I’m drawing on Kinneavy’s categories to make sense of this.

Form, after all (drawing on Lukacs) is evaluation, judgment, and above all, ideology (10). The two can hardly be separated (without toppling the whole house of cards). Moretti says that “literary criticism has for too long kept the terms of Lukacs’s dilemma: to save the warmth of life and the purity of form” (12). Here Moretti explains his reason for treating form as sociological–as telling of certain larger events. Form, then, must not be lumped together as commonplace or cliche, but instead studied as a sociological phenomenon: “A ‘slower’ literary history; and a more ‘discontinuous’ one. At present, criticism relies on too many and too varied criteria in order to slice up the continuum of history” (16) as anyone from a periodized program of study can appreciate. A sociology of literary forms would result, instead, greater historical clarity “towards hardening the edges of historical research” (16).

Moretti’s final illustration to suggest the agreeability of “so undeconstructive and unliberating a notion of literature” is the carving of the soul and the harpy on a Greek tomb. The harpy–a bird-human hybrid–tows the complacent soul to Hades. The soul appears to be at peace; it does not fight. Is the soul, form? Is the harpy a historiographer enlightened by Moretti’s sociology of literary forms? Or the opposite? Perhaps the soul is analogous to literary criticism.

Excerpts: “I am unable to consider my work as something complete; that no methodological or historiographic framework wholly convinces me; and that every change I have made has been prompted by the unfashionable and banal conviction that the main task of criticism is to provide the best possible explanation of the phenomena it discusses” (2).

The future of a text–the conventions and the world views it will help to form and consolidate–is just as much a part of its history and its contribution to history” (7).

“True isomorphisms never occur, and from this categorical discrepancy stems the set of problems that characterizes literary history” (9).

“First, how far has empirical research borne out the antithesis between norm and masterpiece on which literary historiography continues to rest?” (13). Extend this question to disciplinary hits and misses–the matter of celebrated and award-winning articles and their ne’er-again-heard-of contemporaries. What can empirical research do to help explain this? Williams’ article grammars might have bearing here, too.

See p. 22 on “strengthening these connections…”

“Historians know how to use computers; they will have no difficulty learning the difference between metaphor and metonymy–assuming, naturally, that one is able to demonstrate that the choice between these two figures entails cultural differences of some significance” (24).

See p. 40 on “new content, which is not reducible to the sum of its parts” and “all-embracing, as something that guarantees a modus vivendi, an adjustment between conflicting thrusts” (40).