• myth

    Myth

    Myth – A myth is simply a story told over and over and over again by a group of people. Generally, we use “myth” to connote an ancient, sacred narrative (the rape of Prosperine to generate seasonality, the striking of the heavenly spear into the Pacific to create Japan), not just any story. This is [...]

  • naturalism

    Realism and Naturalism

    Realism and Naturalism – In prose that we term realist (small R), the style of expression is “realistic,” meaning “as things actually happen,” not exaggerated for emotional effect. A real story, with real people, drives the power of the text. The style of content is that of a “real” story, in which a true-to-life seeming [...]

  • pomo

    Postmodernism

    Postmodernism – Just as modernity is the period after the Middle Ages, so is postmodernity the period of modernity after modernity’s global (but incomplete) ascendancy—after the exhaustion of the modern and its turn toward severe self-awareness. Generally, we talk about postmodernity as beginning after World War II. The style or movement in art, thought, and [...]

  • whitewhale

    Melancholy and Moby-Dick

    Melancholy and Moby-Dick – AKA, a psychological and highly quotational meditation on the sad, the saturnine, and the furious. Freud defined the term melancholy in its modern sense: …Melancholia is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing about the loss that [...]

  • skull

    Horror versus Terror

    Horror versus Terror – These are the two major divisions of literary, cinematic, or otherwise artistic (representational, strategic) fear. Fear is—along with joy, sadness, anger, and anxiety—one of the most basic human emotions. While anxiety occurs without an external stimulus, fear occurs when we perceive a threat or feel pain. Fear in the brain engenders [...]

  • lobster

    Différance

    Différance: Reflex and Double Articulation – The concept  of “différance” was coined by philosopher Jacques Derrida. He came to it by way of a lineage of reflexive thinkers beginning with Nietzsche, the thinker who’s so reflexive, he posits that even emptiness, death, the abyss, gazes back. (And calls the world to itself: Abyssus abyssum invocat.) [...]

  • machine

    Ambiguity (Narrative, Symbolic)

    Ambiguity (Narrative, Symbolic): Transcendence, Transcendent, Transcendent Signified versus Immanence, Immanent, Immanent Signified – This short exercise in literary theory/philosophy works best if you have drawing implements and a few minutes to think… [Draw picture on board of a box, huge, full of junk. Label "Moby-Dick."] [Draw picture on board of a small, gift-wrapped box, beautiful, [...]

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Chronotope

Chronotope – Linguist and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin Bakhtin uses “chronotope” to mean time-space, or the intrinsic connections between temporal and spatial relationships in a text. The word is also used to mean a specific unit that relates characteristics of space and time, conventionally, within a genre. For example, by this definition, the chronotope of a [...]

Chronographia

Chronographia – A description of time. In A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, Second Edition, Lanham gives the following example from Romeo and Juliet (III, v):      Look, love, what envious streaks Do lace the severing clouds in yonder East. Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.

Carnival

Carnival – Linguist and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin uses the term “carnival” in to mean “the context in which individual voices flourish.” The carnival is a threshold or liminal or uncanny or abject space. In the carnival, conventions are broken, reversed, or disregarded. Out of and because of this seeming chaos, true dialogue begins to [...]

Apophasis versus Cataphasis

Apophasis versus Cataphasis – Revelation/explanation via negative example, opposed to cataphasis (revelation/explanation via positive example, showing). An example is one common theological defense of God: He’s unseen, timeless, without bounding dimension or any limit, etc. Apophasis is more powerful than cataphasis in general: Especially when it comes to theme (emotion, soul), the best strategy is [...]

Antagonist

Antagonist – The person, place, object, idea, or whatever other entity complicate the goals of the protagonist. In The Birds, the birds are antagonists, blocking Nat’s desire to not see his family die. In the Steven Millhauser story “The Invasion From Outer Space,” the main antagonist isn’t from outer space—it’s the town’s desire for something [...]

Allusion

Allusion - Allusions reference other texts, people not explicitly talked about in the text, historical events not directly related to the text, etc. Many names in books are allusive; they recall other characters or books. James Joyce’s great Ulysses is titled after the Latin name of Odysseus, the famous Greek sailor-hero who goes on a great journey of self-discovery. In [...]

The Absurd

The Absurd – a condition in which our reality does not match our pretensions. American philosopher Thomas Nagel gives good examples: As we are being knighted, our pants fall down; we unknowingly read a love poem into a voicemail; etc. Absurdity may or may not be the condition of life. Nagel certainly has a good [...]

Systrophe

Systrophe – The technique of adding description after description of something without ever (“properly”) defining it. Lanham gives the example: “Man is an example of imbecility, the spoil of time, an image of unconstancy, a captive of calamity, a prisoner to pains, a servant to covetousness, finally, a food for worms” (Peacham, p. 137). Hip [...]

How to Read a Book

How to Read a Book – There are four huge domains to explore when reading a book, especially a novel or collection of stories, for a college humanities class. These are: Theme – Emotional insight, expressible as a single sentence or short paragraph. Specific elements in the story lead to a universal insight Structure – [...]