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The Imaginary Library

The Imaginary Library: An Essay on Literature and Society

Copyright Date: 1982
Pages: 196
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  • Book Info
    The Imaginary Library
    Book Description:

    In this speculative treatment of literature as a social institution, Alvin B. Kernan explores the inability of contemporary writers and critics to maintain a literary vision in a society that denies their values and methods.

    Originally published in 1982.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5566-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. Introduction: The Place of Poetry in the World
    (pp. 3-11)

    The place of poetry and its function in the Renaissance world are idealized in Castiglione’sThe Courtier, where the courtier is expected in the service of his prince to be, among other things, an amateur poet who displays in his writing the same civility, manners, control, and perfection of the self which he also realizes in dancing, dress, horsemanship, relations with the other sex, soldiership, and counseling of the ruler. Poetry is assigned an important place in the ideal perfection toward which the courtly life strives—“Writing is simply a form of speaking which endures even after it is uttered,...

  5. I The Actual and Imaginary Library: Literature as a Social Institution
    (pp. 12-36)

    To those inside the academic institution, which is where most of the readers of this book will be, literature still seems, or at least has seemed until quite recently, “a comprehensive and given reality confronting the individual in a manner analogous to the reality of the natural world … given, unalterable and self-evident.” (Berger, 1969, p. 59) For us, literature is as solid as the books shelved row on row in the literature section of the libraries, as real as the library catalogues which distinguish literature from other categories of knowledge such as history, philosophy, science, and, in some classification...

  6. II Mighty Poets in Their Misery Dead: The Death of the Poet in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift
    (pp. 37-65)

    If we were to choose a single event to mark the beginning of poetry in the modern western world, it would have to be Petrarch’s coronation with laurels in the Senate House on the Capitoline Hill in Rome on Easter Sunday, 1341. The procession was headed

    by twelve noble youths in scarlet, reciting poems composed by Petrarch for the occasion. Then came six principal citizens, in green and crowned with flowers. Then the Senator…. He wore a laurel wreath, as did his eminent attendants…. The procession climbed the Capitoline Hill, the site of the Temple of Jupiter. It entered the...

  7. III “Battering the Object”: The Attack on the Literary Text in Malamud’s The Tenants
    (pp. 66-88)

    Literature, unlike the family, but somewhat more like the Christian religion and the law, is a text-centered institution. It is, however, even more dependent on its texts for its reality than religion or the law, much more dependent than a state like our own, which has a few texts—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—at its center, because it lacks the rituals and established hierarchies which objectify and define these other institutions by dramatizing and putting their values into action. But for literature, the canon, the body of official texts, is the substantial literary fact, the reality of...

  8. IV Reading Zemblan: The Audience Disappears in Nabokov’s Pale Fire
    (pp. 89-129)

    The place of literature in the world is established not only by its poets and its texts but by its end as well, the particular kinds of social work it sets for itself and is perceived as doing. In the Renaissance and the neo-classical periods the close dependence of poetry on the dominant social order dictated a purpose of supporting that order. This service was performed directly by praising kings and their courts, great men and their houses, and indirectly by enacting the courtly interests and ethos in poetic subject matter and style. Most importantly and consistently, however, poetry fulfilled...

  9. V The Taking of the Moon: The Struggle of the Poetic and Scientific Myths in Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon
    (pp. 130-161)

    At the center of the institution of literature there is, I have argued earlier in Chapter I, a world-view or myth which informs the various activities of the institution and is in turn objectified by them. To speak ofthemyth of literature, as Frye does, is probably a mistake since no two minds seem to conceive literature in exactly the same way, and since the dialectic interaction of world and mind results in constant change in the myth. Nevertheless, the great central statements about the nature of literature during a given period tend to hang together well enough to...

  10. VI Finding the New Thing
    (pp. 162-175)

    “In ancient times,” says Charles Citrine,

    poetry was a force, the poet had real strength in the material world. Of course, the material world was different then. But what interest could a Humboldt raise? … He consented to the monopoly of power and interest held by money, politics, law, rationality, technology because he couldn’t find the next thing, the new thing, the necessary thing for poets to do. Instead he did a former thing. He got himself a pistol, like Verlaine, and chased Magnasco. (155)

    All the poet-protagonists in the books we have looked at in detail do a former,...

  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 176-180)
  12. Index
    (pp. 181-186)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 187-187)