Literature as Equipment for Living

Burke, Kenneth. 1973/1941. _The Philosophy of Literary Form_. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Pp. 293-304.

[*Square brackets indicate the end of a page in the printed version of the text.*]

HERE I shall put down, as briefly as possible, a statement in behalf of what might be catalogued, with a fair degree of accuracy, as a sociological criticism of literature. Socio- logical criticism in itself is certainly not new. I shall here try to suggest what partially new elements or emphasis I think should be added to this old approach. And to make the “way in” as easy as possible, I shall begin with a discussion of proverbs.

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Examine random specimens in _The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs_. You will note, I think, that there is no “pure” literature here. Everything is “medicine.” Proverbs are designed for consolation or vengeance, for admonition or exhortation, for foretelling.

Or they name typical, recurrent situations. That is, people find a certain social relationship recurring so frequently that they must “have a word for it.” The Eskimos have special names for many different kinds of snow (fifteen, if I remember rightly) because variations in the quality of snow greatly affect their living. Hence, they must “size up” snow much more accurately than we do. And the same is true of social phenomena. Social structures give rise to “type” situations, subtle subdivisions of the relationships [294] involved in competitive and cooperative acts. Many proverbs seek to chart, in more or less homey and picturesque ways, these “type” situations. I submit that such naming is done, not for the sheer glory of the thing, but because of its bearing upon human welfare. A different name for snow implies a different kind of hunt. Some names for snow imply that one should not hunt at all. And similarly, the names for typical, recurrent social situations are not developed out of “disinterested curiosity,” but because the names imply a command (what to expect, what to look out for).

To illustrate with a few representative examples:

Proverbs designed for consolation: “The sun does not shine on both sides of the hedge at once.” “Think of ease, but work on.” “Little troubles the eye, but far less the soul.” “The worst luck now, the better another time.” “The wind in one’s face makes one wise.” “He that hath lands hath quarrels.” “He knows how to carry the dead cock home.” “He is not poor that hath little, but he that desireth much.”
For vengeance: “ At length the fox is brought to the furrier.” “Shod in the cradle, barefoot in the stubble.” “Sue a beggar and get a louse.” “The higher the ape goes, the more he shows his tail.” “The moon does not heed the barking of dogs.” “He measures another’s corn by his own bushel.” “He shuns the man who knows him well.” “Fools tie knots and wise men loose them.”

Proverbs that have to do with foretelling: (The most obvious are those to do with the weather.) “Sow peas and beans in the wane of the moon, Who soweth them sooner, he soweth too soon.” “When the wind’s in the north, the skilful fisher goes not forth.” “When the sloe tree is as white as a sheet, sow your barley whether it be dry or wet.” “When the sun sets bright and clear, An easterly wind you need not [295] fear. When the sun sets in a bank, A westerly wind we shall not want.”

In short: “Keep your weather eye open”: be realistic about sizing up today’s weather, because your accuracy has bearing upon tomorrow’s weather. And forecast not only the meteorological weather, but also the social weather: “When the moon’s in the full, then wit’s in the wane.” “Straws show which way the wind blows.” “When the fish is caught, the net is laid aside.” “Remove an old tree, and it will wither to death.” “The wolf may lose his teeth, but never his nature.” “He that bites on every weed must needs light on poison.” “Whether the pitcher strikes the stone, or the stone the pitcher, it is bad for the pitcher.” “Eagles catch no flies.” “The more laws, the more offenders.”

In this foretelling category we might also include the recipes for wise living, sometimes moral, sometimes technical: “First thrive, and then wive.” “Think with the wise but talk with the vulgar .” “When the fox preacheth, then beware your geese.” “Venture a small fish to catch a great one.” “Respect a man, he will do the more.”

In the class of “typical, recurrent situations” we might put such proverbs and proverbial expressions as: “Sweet appears sour when we pay.” “The treason is loved but the traitor is hated.” “The wine in the bottle does not quench thirst.” “The sun is never the worse for shining on a dunghill.” “The lion kicked by an ass.” “The lion’s share.” “To catch one napping.” “To smell a rat.” “To cool one’s heels.”

By all means, I do not wish to suggest that this is the only way in which the proverbs could be classified. For instance, I have listed in the “foretelling” group the proverb, “When the fox preacheth, then beware your geese.” But it could obviously be “taken over” for vindictive purposes. Or consider [296] a proverb like, “Virtue flies from the heart of a mercenary man.” A poor man might obviously use it either to console himself for being poor (the implication being, “Because I am poor in money I am rich in virtue”) or to strike at another (the implication being, “When he got money, what else could you expect of him but deterioration?”). In fact, we could even say that such symbolic vengeance would itself be an aspect of solace. And a proverb like “The sun is never the worse for shining on a dunghill” (which I have listed under “typical recurrent situations”) might as well be put in the vindictive category.

The point of issue is not to find categories that “place” the proverbs once and for all. What I want is categories that suggest their active nature. Here there is no “realism for its own sake.” There is realism for promise, admonition, solace, vengeance, foretelling, instruction, charting, all for the direct bearing that such acts have upon matters of welfare.

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Step two: Why not extend such analysis of proverbs to encompass the whole field of literature? Could the most complex and sophisticated works of art legitimately be con- sidered somewhat as “proverbs writ large”? Such leads, if held admissible, should help us to discover important facts about literary organization (thus satisfying the requirements of technical criticism). And the kind of observation from this perspective should apply beyond literature to life in general (thus helping to take literature out of its separate bin and give it a place in a general “sociological” picture).

The point of view might be phrased in this way: Proverbs are *strategies* for dealing with *situations*. In so far as situations [297] are typical and recurrent in a given social structure, people develop names for them and strategies for handling them. Another name for strategies might be *attitudes*.

People have often commented on the fact that there are contrary *proverbs*. But I believe that the above approach to proverbs suggests a necessary modification of that comment. The apparent contradictions depend upon differences in *attitude*, involving a correspondingly different choice of *strategy*. Consider, for instance, the *apparently* opposite pair: “Repentance comes too late” and “Never too late to mend.” The first is admonitory. It says in effect: “You’d better look out, or you’ll get yourself too far into this business.” The second is consolatory, saying in effect: “Buck up, old man, you can still pull out of this.”

Some critics have quarreled with me about my selection of the word “strategy” as the name for this process. I have asked them to suggest an alternative term, so far without profit. The only one I can think of is “method.” But if “strategy” errs in suggesting to some people an overly conscious procedure, “method” errs in suggesting an overly “methodical” one. Anyhow, let’s look at the documents:

_Concise Oxford Dictionary_: “Strategy: Movement of an army or armies in a compaign, art of so moving or disposing troops or ships as to impose upon the enemy the place and time and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself” (from a Greek word that refers to the leading of an army).

_New English Dictionary_: “Strategy: The art of projecting and directing the larger military movements and operations of a campaign.”

Andre Cheron, _Traite Complet d’ Echecs_: “On entend par strategie les manoeuvres qui ont pour but la sortie et le bon arrangement des pieces.” [298]

Looking at these definitions, I gain courage. For surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one’s campaign of living. One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.”

Are not the final results one’s “strategy”? One tries, as far as possible, to develop a strategy whereby one “can’t lose.” One tries to change the rules of the game until they fit his own necessities. Does the artist encounter disaster? He will “make capital” of it. If one is a victim of competition, for instance, if one is elbowed out, if one is willy-nilly more jockeyed against than jockeying, one can by the solace and vengeance of art convert this very “liability” into an “asset.” One tries to fight on his own terms, developing a strategy for imposing the proper “time, place, and conditions.”

But one must also, to develop a full strategy, be *realistic*. One must *size things up* properly. One cannot accurately know how things *will be* what is promising and what is menacing, unless he accurately knows how things *are*. So the wise strategist will not be content with strategies of merely a self-gratifying sort. He will “keep his weather eye open.” He will not too eagerly “read into” a scene an attitude that is irrelevant to it. He won’t sit on the side of an active volcano and “see” it as a dormant plain.

Often, alas, he will. The great allurement in our present popular “inspirational literature,” for instance, may be largely of this sort. It is a strategy for easy consolation. It “fills a need,” since there is always a need for easy consolation [299] — and in an era of confusion like our own the need is especially keen. So people are only too willing to “meet a man halfway” who will play down the realistic naming of our situation and play up such strategies as make solace cheap. However, I should propose a reservation here. We usually take it for granted that people who consume our current output of books on “How to Buy Friends and Bamboozle Oneself and Other People” are reading as students who will attempt applying the recipes given. Nothing of the sort. The reading of a book on the attaining of success is in itself the symbolic attaining of that success. It is while they read that these readers are “succeeding.” I’ll wager that, in by far the great majority of cases, such readers make no serious attempt to apply the book’s recipes. The lure of the book resides in the fact that the reader, while reading it, is then living in the aura of success. What he wants is easy success; and he gets it in symbolic form by the mere reading itself. To attempt applying such stuff in real life would be very difficult, full of many disillusioning difficulties.

Sometimes a different strategy may arise. The author may remain realistic, avoiding too easy a form of solace—yet he may get as far off the track in his own way. Forgetting that realism is an aspect for foretelling, he may take it as an end in itself. He is tempted to do this by two factors: (1) an ill-digested philosophy of science, leading him mistakenly to assume that “relentless” naturalistic “truthfulness” is a proper end in itself, and (2) a merely competitive desire to outstrip other writers by being “more realistic” than they. Works thus made “efficient” by tests of competition internal to the book trade are a kind of academicism not so named (the writer usually thinks of it as the opposite of academicism). Realism thus stepped up competitively might be distinguished [300] from the proper sort by the name of “naturalism.” As a way of “sizing things up,” the naturalistic tradition ends to become as inaccurate as the “inspirational” strategy, though at the opposite extreme.

Anyhow, the main point is this: A work like _Madame Bovary_ (or its homely American translation, _Babbitt_) is the strategic naming of a situation. It singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structure, that recurs sufficiently often *mutandis mutates*, for people to “need a word for it” and to adopt an attitude towards it. Each work of art is the addition of a word to an informal dictionary (or, in the case of purely derivative artists, the addition of a subsidiary meaning to a word already given by some originating artist). As for _Madame Bovary_, the French critic Jules de Gaultier proposed to add it to our formal dictionary by coining the word “Bovarysme” and writing a whole book to say what he meant by it.

Mencken’s book on _The American Language_, I hate to say, is splendid. I console myself with the reminder that Mencken didn’t write it. Many millions of people wrote it, and Mencken was merely the amanuensis who took it down from their dictation. He found a true “vehicle” (that is, a book that could be greater than the author who wrote it). He gets the royalties, but the job was done by a collectivity. As you read that book, you see a people who were up against a new set of typical recurrent situations, situations typical of their business, their politics, their criminal organizations, their sports. Either there were no words for these in standard English, or people didn’t know them, or they didn’t “sound right.” So a new vocabulary arose, to “give us a word for it.” I see no reason for believing that Americans are unusually fertile in word-coinage. American slang was [301] not developed out of some exceptional gift. It was developed out of the fact that new typical situations had arisen and people needed names for them. They had to “size things up.” They had to console and strike, to promise and ad- monish. They had to describe for purposes of forecasting. And “slang” was the result. It is, by this analysis, simply proverbs not so named, a kind of “folk criticism.”

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With what, then, would “sociological criticism” along these lines be concerned? It would seek to codify the various strategies which artists have developed with relation to the naming of situations. In a sense, much of it would even be “timeless,” for many of the “typical, recurrent situations” are not peculiar to our own civilization at all. The situations and strategies framed in _Aesop’s Fables_, for instance, apply to human relations now just as fully as they applied in ancient Greece. They are, like philosophy, sufficiently “generalized” to extend far beyond the particular combination of events named by them in any one instance. They name an “essence.” Or, as Korzybski might say, they are on a “high level of abstraction.” One doesn’t usually think of them as “abstract,” since they are usually so concrete in their stylistic expression. But they invariably aim to discern the “general behind the particular” (which would suggest that they are good Goethe).

The attempt to treat literature from the standpoint of situations and strategies suggests a variant of Spengler’s notion of the “contemporaneous.” By “contemporaneity” he meant corresponding stages of different cultures. For instance, if modern New York is much like decadent Rome, then we are “contemporaneous” with decadent Rome, or [302] with some corresponding decadent city among the Mayas, etc. It is in this sense that situations are “timeless,” “non- historical,” “contemporaneous.” A given human relation- ship may be at one time named in terms of foxes and lions, if there are foxes and lions about; or it may now be named in terms of salesmanship, advertising, the tactics of politicians, etc. But beneath the change in particulars, we may often discern the naming of the one situation.

So sociological criticism, as here understood, would seek to assemble and codify this lore. It might occasionally lead us to outrage good taste, as we sometimes found exemplified in some great sermon or tragedy or abstruse work of philosophy the same strategy as we found exemplified in a dirty joke. At this point, we’d put the sermon and the dirty joke together, thus “grouping by situation” and showing the range of possible particularizations. In his exceptionally discerning essay, “A Critic’s Job of Work,” R. P. Blackmur says, “I think on the whole his (Burke’s) method could be applied with equal fruitfulness to Shakespeare, Dashiell Hammett, or Marie Corelli.” When I got through wincing, I had to admit that Blackmur was right. This article is an attempt to say for the method what can be said. As a matter of fact, I’ll go a step further and maintain: you can’t properly put Marie Corelli and Shakespeare apart until you have first put them together. First genus, then differentia. The strategy in common is the genus. The *range* or *scale* or *spectrum* of particularizations is the differentia. Anyhow, that’s what I’m driving at. And that’s why reviewers sometime find in my work “intuitive” leaps that are dubious as “science.” They are not “leaps” at all. They are classifications, groupings, made on the basis of some strategic element common to the items grouped. They are [303] neither more nor less “intuitive” than any grouping or classification of social events. Apples can be grouped with bananas as fruits, and they can be grouped with tennis balls as round. I am simply proposing, in the social sphere, a method of classification with reference to strategies.

The method has these things to be said in its favor: It gives definite insight into the organization of literary works; and it automatically breaks down the barriers erected about literature as a specialized pursuit. People can classify novels by reference to three kinds, eight kinds, seventeen kinds. It doesn’t matter. Students patiently copy down the professor’s classification and pass examinations on it, because the range of possible academic classifications is endless. Sociological classification, as herein suggested, would derive its relevance from the fact that it should apply both to works of art and to social situations outside of art.

It would, I admit, violate current pieties, break down current categories, and thereby “outrage good taste.” But “good taste” has become inert. The classifications I am pro- posing would be active. I think that what we need is active categories.

These categories will lie on the bias across the categories of modern specialization. The new alignment will outrage in particular those persons who take the division of faculties in our universities to be an exact replica of the way in which God himself divided up the universe. We have had the Philosophy of the Being; and we have had the Philosophy of the Becoming. In contemporary specialization, we have been getting the Philosophy of the Bin. Each of these mental localities has had its own peculiar way of life, its own values, even its own special idiom for seeing, thinking, and “proving.” Among other things, a sociological approach should [304] attempt to provide a re-integrative point of view, a broader empire of investigation encompassing the lot.

What would such sociological categories be like? They would consider works of art, I think, as strategies for selecting enemies and allies, for socializing losses, for warding off evil eye, for purification, propitiation, and de-sanctification, in consolation and vengeance, admonition and exhortation, implicit commands or instructions of one sort or another. Art forms like “tragedy’. or “comedy” or “satire” would be treated as equipments for living, that size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes. The typical ingredients of such forms would be sought. Their relation to typical situations would be stressed. Their comparative values would be considered, with the intention of formulating a “strategy of strategies,” the “over-all” strategy obtained by inspection of the lot.