Methodological Considerations

All history, all environmental factors,
can be argued to shape a work of art.[1]


It seems appropriate at this point to make some kind of assertion with regard to literary theory or methodology. Writing a literary thesis like this seems to require a statement about what kind of literary theory will be used. Today, the student of literature is drowned in different schools and theories. To such an extent has the emphasis on theory sky-rocketed that, in fact, one can study the theories in isolation as such and almost disregard completely the works of art from which they originated, or to which they should be applied.[2] This is a confusing situation for the student who wants to do ‘merely’ a thematical study. Being such a student, I find it necessary to dissociate myself from the view that one must choose one theory and stick to it. On the contrary, I shall use what I know from various schools of theory when I think it is appropriate, but I do not propose to discuss literary theory as such at length. Fashions in theory, like fashions in clothes, tend to move in circles. Usually the new trend is a reaction to the previous one. But at some point, a new trend again uses the basic pattern of a past trend, but normally with a somewhat different contemporary twist. Some ways of coming to grips with the text may return after a period of absence, only in a new outfit. The aporia of Deconstruction, for example, could be compared with the irony of New Criticism; here one could find, I believe, many similarities. A development like this seems to me very human and understandable, although it also has a depressing aspect with regard to the notion of development as a steady march towards new insights. A similar circular development can also be found in A Chain of Voices, it is even suggested in the very title. A chain, made out of many small circles, is stretched out from 1725 until today; but when will it end? Perhaps it will never end, it will just assume a new form, take a new direction. But it nevertheless consists of energy and life that exists under conditions that, seen in isolation, constituted the only possible reality for those involved at that particular time. It is important to live life while you have got it. If one has an additional capacity of looking with one eye over the horizon at eternity or history stretched out endlessly, as Galant possibly does, such a perspective can be a very good thing, but, as with Galant, it may also have its dangers. There are, of course, beneficial aspects as well to the circular development of history, as well as with literary theory, that should not be overlooked. Though they both move in circles, something is always added in the new turn, making them always into something slightly different than what they were before.

When I choose as my main basis the heritage from New Criticism, it is because it is a heritage that arguably forms part of the basis of most later developments in literary theory: ‘they [the New Critics] formulated a number of assumptions about literature and literary study that still play a significant part in the academic world today.’[3] I shall say very little about form and language in isolation but rather concentrate on content, message, theme. My focus then, is mostly on the mimetic dimension and not on the formal dimension. The fictional literature professor Philip Malan in Brink’s States of Emergency gives a lecture dealing with ‘the recent proliferation of lunatic heresies in literary theory. It is time to return to the text, the text über alles’.[4] Even with the irony carried by the last two words in this statement, this is still easily recognizable as one of the ‘commandments’ of New Criticism, and close attention to the text will also be my point of departure (without going to deeply into its formal aspects, as mentioned above).

But even if the text is what I shall focus on, I do not subscribe to the idea of the ultimate death of the author and thus a completely isolated status for the work of art, as post-structuralist theories do. I agree with Brink (and the New Critics), that ‘Authors’ intentions are erratic and unpredictable and most unreliable’,[5] but it seems obvious to me that a certain awareness of the author’s background can be useful and is important when it comes to understanding the full range of a piece of art. In Brink’s case, for example, it is a fact that his critical writing was perceived as much more threatening and dangerous for the authorities in South Africa, than for example Nadine Gordimer’s novels. If we did not know that Brink is an Afrikaaner while Gordimer’s parents were Jewish emigrants from London, we would not understand why. The insider, when writing against the regime, will be perceived as more dangerous and ‘subversive’ by those being criticized, than an equally critical outsider (which may explain why Brink was the first author to have a novel banned in South Africa. Other strongly critical writings had already been published, but not by an Afrikaaner).[6] There are also other reasons for my reluctance to employ post-structuralist theories than their death-of-the-author claim. However, I shall not go deeply into them here, only mention briefly the common accusations of cultural relativism, the insistence on viewing everything as text, with the moral and ethical implications this is bound to have, for example in relation to the possible existence of a morally responsible agent with a personal identity.[7]

As mentioned before, A Chain of Voices is one of Brink’s historical novels. ‘By juxtaposing historical fact (or informed and plausible conjecture) with contemporary prejudice, he [Brink] highlights the absurdity and immorality of apartheid.’[8] It is, however, also what Wellek and Warren call a ‘more philosophic novel’, adding ‘to chronology the structure of causation’.[9] In A Chain of Voices, however, we may come to feel that the end is not particularly different from the beginning. Much happens in the course of the novel, characters certainly deteriorate and improve and a line of causation can certainly be seen at work, but in the end we may feel that nothing has really changed. Like a link in a chain, what happens in the novel does not carry much significance viewed from a distance, but still, history, like the chain, is totally dependent on all its links. We have witnessed the dynamics of human destinies in an exciting interchange, moving towards an end that may be interpreted in different ways, something I shall return to during my analysis of the novel.

Booth identifies three kinds of interests or ‘values […] available for technical manipulation in fiction’:

(1) Intellectual or cognitive: We have, or can be made to have, strong intellectual curiosity about ‘the facts,’ the true interpretation, the true reasons, the true origins, the true motives, or the truth about life itself. (2) Qualitative: We have, or can be made to have, a strong desire to see any pattern or form completed, or to experience a further development of qualities of any kind […] (3) Practical: We have, or can be made to have, a strong desire for the success or failure of those we love or hate, admire or detest; or we can be made to hope for or fear a change in the quality of the character.[10]

Every urge or desire described in the above citation is involved in reading A Chain of Voices, but the problem is how to treat these interests. Contrary to many modern schools of literary study, Wellek and Warren claim that literary study is not a science, but ‘a species of knowledge or of learning’.[11] They are sceptical about literary theories that are based on the natural sciences, and describe them as not having reached the goal they set for themselves; relevant examples are theories that could be identified especially as those of Formalism and Structuralism (even though the New Critics too, attempted to reach some kind of objectivity in the study of literature). When your main interest is what the text is about, theories of this kind do not necessarily provide a good answer. This is due to the very difficult task of establishing a theme or a meaning that can be deduced on scientific premises, that will hold water scientifically. The assertion that ‘attempts to find general laws in literature have always failed’[12] sounds reasonable still. Furthermore, theories that claim to be scientific often have absolute objectivity as their main goal, trying to fit literature into a closed system that ensures objectivity and is not disturbed by what happens in the ‘real’ world, the world outside the text. But it seems far more reasonable to say that

literary scholarship has its own valid methods which are not always those of the natural sciences but are nevertheless intellectual methods […] It should be simply recognized that there is this difference between the methods and aims of the natural sciences and the humanities.[13]

An approach ‘denying that literary scholarship is a science, [and that] asserts the personal character of literary “understanding”’ seems sensible to me.[14] The danger inherent in this attitude is obvious: ‘Personal “intuition” may lead to a merely emotional “appreciation,” to complete subjectivity.’[15] In their treatment of this dilemma, Wellek and Warren emphasize the importance of recognizing that ‘each work of literature is both general and particular, or—better, possibly—is both individual and general’ (my italics); they further state that ‘each work of literature has its individual characteristics; but it also shares common properties with other works of art’.[16] In this way, according to their view, it should be possible to say something general and ‘true’ about a piece of art, without having to rely on the premises of the natural sciences. The reader will always ‘grasp some “structure of determination” in the object’.[17]Wellek and Warren’s statement then, that the student of literature ‘must translate his experience of literature into intellectual terms, assimilate it to a coherent scheme which must be rational if it is to be knowledge’[18] is one that I readily subscribe to as a necessary point of departure. I shall accordingly try above all to provide reasonable and coherent readings of the text, with emphasis on complexity and inclusiveness.

Trusting that experience and education has enabled me to become aware of interesting and fruitful aspects and to recognize significant traits in the text, I shall constantly strive to adopt the responsibility of the experienced and attentive reader, supporting my interpretations with close reference to the text, to which I shall now turn.


[1] Wellek and Warren, p. 73.
[2] ‘Even “literary experts” are trying their damnedest to draw literature into a […] watertight enclave accessible only to them’. From the essay ‘Imagining the Real’ (1981), in Brink, Writing in a State of Siege, p. 220.
[3] Ann Jefferson and David Robey (eds.), Modern Literary Theory: A Comparative Introduction 2nd ed. (London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1991), p. 73.
[4] P. 25.
[5] Brink, ‘Writers and Writing in the World’ (1969), in Writing in a State of Siege, p. 42.
[6] This is not to say that the outsider cannot make valuable contributions and provide us with aspects and contexts that the insider to a much lesser degree is able to. The insider could possibly be regarded as disqualified in judging a situation he himself is so much a part of.
[7] These are thoughts that were discussed in Stein Haugom Olsen’s seminar ‘Ethics, Literature, and Criticism’, Autumn 1994. In written form, similar criticism can be found f.ex. in Richard Freadman & Seumas Miller, Re-Thinking Theory (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1992), ch. 3.
[8] Horneman, p. 83.
[9] Wellek and Warren, p. 215.
[10] Booth, p. 125.
[11] Wellek and Warren, p. 15.
[12] Wellek and Warren, p. 18.
[13] Wellek and Warren, pp. 16–17.
[14] Wellek and Warren, p. 18.
[15] Wellek and Warren, p. 18.
[16] Wellek and Warren, p. 19.
[17] Wellek and Warren, p. 152.
[18] Wellek and Warren, p. 15.

Lindgren (c) 2018