Think Tank 1/4

Think Tank Radboud University  - 02 november 2022

A little history of literature

In the Think Tank Literature in Society / Society in Literature, literature students from Radboud University complete their bachelor’s degree by orienting themselves on a current issue in relation to their discipline. In the academic year 2021-2022 seven students worked on a plan to inform a broad audience about Wintertuin’s view of literature and contemporary authorship, resulting in the English Instagram page Writer’s Corner.
As part of this project the Think Tank also wrote four essays with the work of John Sutherland as a starting point, followed by Jan-Hendrik Bakker, Roland Barthes, Arnold Bennett, Terry Eagleton, Marco Goud, Adriaan van der Weel and Chantal Zabus. The literary scene is ever evolving, which results in numerous debates. However, the majority of these debates are not necessarily happening in the public discourse. The debates take place in academic environments and, thus, they are conducted in a specialised language that is not available for a wider audience nor is it intended for it.
The following essays provide a bridge between the academic debates and the public discourse. The content of the previously mentioned works is summarised in a more digestible language that is intended for a wider audience. In being more accessible, the debates are tackled from different perspectives, which in turn can result in new understanding of what literature and authorship mean nowadays.


A Little History of Literature

a summary of the book by John Sutherland


Chapter 1: What is Literature?

Literature is, according to Sutherland, predominantly a storation of knowledge. Literature enables the contemporary reader to obtain knowledge: ‘If we read well, we find ourselves in a conversational relationship with the most creative minds of our own time and of the past.’ (p.17). Sutherland traverses the origins of literature through children’s literature, which is able to construct an ‘alternative universe’ – a universe of the imagination (p.19). Initially, literature is represented as ‘the human mind at the very height of its ability to express and interpret the world around us. Literature […] enlarges our minds and sensibilities to the point where we can better handle complexity.’ (p.23). However, the charms of literature and its spin-off forms are – as emphasized by Sutherland – dangerous as ‘literature distracts us from the real business of living. It traffics in falsehoods – beautiful falsehoods, it is true, but for that reason all the more dangerous.’ (p.22). 


Chapter 2: Fabulous Beginnings – Myth

Prior to written and printed literature, literature was experienced orally through the telling of myths. Oral literature or: spoken literature is – like written literature – ‘a way of helping people make sense of our world’ (p.26). Essentially, myths predominantly enable an explanation through stories and, accompanying this, symbols. Additionally, the mythical story consists of a plot, a complication, and a resolution. Furthermore, the mythical story traditionally contains a truth: ‘Myth always contains within it that grain of truth which is as relevant for us now as it was for the time when it was written. And mythic thought lives on, thrives even, long after you might think modern society and science had left its explanations hopelessly behind. It is, if you look carefully, woven into the fabric of contemporary literature, even if the eye does not immediately see it.’ (p.30-31). 


Chapter 3: Writing for Nations – Epic

The Epic traditionally connotes ‘an epic struggle’ (p. 36). Epic literature, however, denotes a ‘very select, very ancient, set of texts that carry values which are “heroic” in tone.’ (p.37). Historically, epic evolves out of myth. The most well-known British epic is Beowulf with an eighth-century heroic warrior slays monsters. According to Sutherland, ‘British literature is founded on this 3182-line Anglo-Saxon poem.’ (p.39). The storement of literary works was predominantly in monasteries: ‘Monasteries were institutions that archived the nation’s earliest writings and nurtured learning and literacy’ (p.40). In addition, epic literary works indicate transnational moments in history and, accompanying this, epics mark the ‘birth of nations’ (p.40). In particular, the literary epic has four predominant elements: ‘it is long, heroic, nationalistic and – in its purest literary form, poetic.’ (p.46). In addition, the epic nostalgically remembers a great age that has passed with ‘epic greatness – heroism and honour.’ (p.47). 


Chapter 4: Being Human – Tragedy

The tragedy enables ‘the imposition of “form” on the raw [literary] materials of myth, legend and epic.’ (p.48). Traditionally, literary tragedy predominantly centralizes a tragic event that is enjoyed by the contemporary reader (p.54). The enjoyment or pleasure in and of tragedy is interlinked with Aristotle’s ‘imitation’ or: mimesis – it is not the cruelty, but the artistic representation of the tragic event that is pleasurable for the contemporary reader (p.54). In addition, the tragedy affects the audience through the performances of tragedy: ‘the specific emotions that tragedy brings […] are “pity and fear”. Pity, that is, for the tragic hero’s suffering, and fear because, if it happens to the tragic hero, it can happen to anyone – even us.’ (p. 56-57). The theory of catharsis – or: ‘the tempering of emotions’ […]: ‘The mood will be sober, reflective – people will be in a sense exhausted by what they have seen onstage. But also strangely elevated, as if they had gone through something like a religious experience.’ (p.57). The two primary factors – as rooted in Aristotle’s theory and noted by Sutherland – are: (i) the tragedy is well constructed and (ii) the tragedy confronts a mystery or examines big life questions (p. 58). 


Chapter 5: Theatre on The Street – The Mystery Plays

The printing and modern theatre originally emerged during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In particular, theatre originates through imitation (mimesis) or: play-acting: ‘imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation. And it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation’ (p.72). Furthermore, Sutherland highlights the twofold or mutual relationship of the theatre: ‘The point to be made is that our experience of drama also requires certain skills in us, as the audience, as to how to respond, appreciate and judge the performance. The more you go to the theater, the better you get at it.’ (p.73). Furthermore, theatrical plays that depicted biblical stories – as evolved out of religious rituals – were traditionally known as ‘mysteries’ (p. 74). The guilds and, accompanying this, the early trade unions sponsored and performed the mystery plays, especially outside London.
In the medieval period, the most well-known book was the Bible. However, the vast majority of the population was literature; hence, the ‘guilds took it on themselves to evangelise – spread the good word – by street entertainment. […] The guild stored lavish costumes, props and scripts for repeated use.’ (p. 76). The Second Shepherd’s Play is traditionally considered as the pioneering play of street theatre. Conclusively, Sutherland emphasizes the distinction between performative and written literature: ‘You can pick up a book any time and put it down when you want. It is different in a theatre: the curtain goes up at a precise moment and comes down at specifically timed intervals. The audience does not move from its seats while watching the play. People, even in the twenty-first century, tend to ‘dress up’ to go to the theatre. They generally do not, as when watching TV, eat meals or talk during the performance; if you so much as rustle sweet wrappers, or worse still, your mobile goes off, you will get furious glances. The audience tends to break into laughter at the same moments and they applaud at the end.’ (p. 82).


SUTHERLAND, JOHN. A Little History of Literature. Yale University Press, 2013.


Think Tank Radboud University consists of a new group of art students every year from Radboud University who complete their bachelor's degree by orienting themselves on a current issue in relation to their discipline. In 2022 the Think Tank titled Literature in Society / Society in Literature consisted of seven students.