Swim against the current, and further upstream

It seems little known and widely unappreciated that the Afrikaans translation of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale (1916) appeared in 1966, just seven years after the first English translation by Wade Baskin in 1959. Alewyn Lee’s translation, Kursus in algemene taalkunde (coincidentally also published by Van Schaik), gave Afrikaans literary studies every reason to be at the forefront of the linguistic turn (and even structuralism) in the twentieth century. Why this didn’t happen is one of the many ironies of the intellectual history of South Africa, comparable to the wilful neglect of Olive Schreiner’s philosophy. Neglect of Saussure in South African departments of literature is reflected in Die wêreld van die storie by prof. Willie Burger.

a stilet.echo response by Thomas Olver for 30(1&2) Novum

As introductions to theory of literature generally go, there are two formats. One is a synthetic view where a single author or group of authors produces a summary of the main theories and currents. By definition it is derivative: it reduces a vast volume of (hopefully primary) material into a manageable survey. To justify this derivation, the summary is usually written from a particular perspective or champions a specific ideology. In English, a proficient example of this approach is Terry Eagleton’s Literary theory: an introduction (1983). The second format is an anthology of selected key primary texts that encapsulate the main theoretical currents, and users of the volume are left to form their own synthesis. The editors facilitate this by arrangement of and short introductory frames for the material. The early double anthology edited by David Lodge (20th century literary criticism, 1972, and Modern Criticism and Theory, 1988, now in a third revised edition, 2008) is a serviceable example of the second format (although unfortunately all three editions use the confusing 1983 translation of Saussure’s Cours by Roy Harris). Implicit in both approaches is the expectation that readers will pursue the primary theorists in further detail.

While not an introduction to literary theory in the broad sense, Die wêreld van die storie introduces the more modest field of narrative theory or narratology, and as such it adopts the approach of summary and synthesis. Where Eagleton’s synthesis is unambiguously Marxist, this book’s perspective is more difficult to characterise. Impressionistic comes to mind, not only because the focus is generally on the subjective reader of literature and the reception of literary texts, but also because the book itself departs from a formal academic tone and adopts a first person/second person style of authorial intimacy with its reader. This review briefly considers three aspects of Burger’s book, namely the underpinning premise of the study, its didactic utility and the limitations of its synthesis of theories.

To the extent the book lays out a systematic theory of narrative, this correlates with the Aristotelian distinction between the literary text and the world: the world is real and the text reflects and replicates this reality in make-believe worlds. This world of the story must then be measured by the reader against the so-called real world. Although it does not explicitly recognise itself as such, Burger’s study thus also has a strong reader-reception bias, and treats literature as products for consumption in a great virtual supermarket of cultural make-believe. By this logic, the measure of a story is the degree to which the literary text reproduces and affirms the tastes and values (aesthetic, ideological) of the reader-consumer. Was it for this we killed off the author? To be fair, the study does probe reality, prodded perhaps by Plato’s cave analogy – The Republic appears briefly in reference to mimesis (xv; 31-34, with an error in the publication details for the first reference) – but reality is questioned only in the diachronic sense of shifting or alternative realities, untroubling to the reader-consumer who is portrayed travelling like a tourist to these imaginary worlds (and back) from the comfort of his overstuffed armchair. By decentring the linguistic artefact, and the mechanisms through which it produces meaning, the study neglects linguistic structure and fails to examine how reality itself is a synchronic as well as diachronic construct of language. Such a Saussurean cosmology requires an entirely different way of reading, one that is productive rather than consumptive – “writerly” rather than “readerly” in Roland Barthes’s idiom (1990:4).

Other reviewers of Burger’s study (Joan Hambidge, Dewald Koen, Alwyn Roux) have highlighted its strengths (and a number of specific errors). They have also commended its utility for students of literature. My inclination, however, is to disagree with the didactic utility of Die wêreld van die storie. The most immediate didactic constraint is the constant use of inverted commas (also called scare quotes) to indicate that words and concepts are being deployed in ways divergent from their standard or conventional meaning. The text fails to define these hundreds of terms, and simply assumes by the wink of quotation marks that the reader will understand the intended “theoretical” meaning. This widespread practice in South African academic writing produces lazy and imprecise usage, and students should be expressly discouraged from adopting such looseness. The book, however, also uses quotation marks to indicate translations and importations of terms as well as actual quotations, making terminology even harder to follow. Systematic definitions of key terms such as narrative and plot are absent, and scattershot examples are used instead. Terminological flaccidity commences already with the poetic conceit of the two key words in the title – story and world. Story is used interchangeably to mean narrative, parole, plot, fiction and/or non-fiction, novels, biography, literature, myth, legend, fable, ecriture and orality. World is equally stretched to just about every conceivable meaning of the word. This inconsistency makes it hard to assess arguments and gives the text an informal folksy register. While acceptable in popular magazines, this is wholly unsuited to intellectual and didactic vigour. As a principle, inverted commas should be used only to indicate direct, referenced quotes from other texts. Academic writing must give full definitions for key terms and new vocabulary, either in the flow of the argument or an appendix, and it should resist the urge to use scare quotes in lieu of definitions.

Two further aspects diminish the value to students of this introductory study, namely the extensive use of paraphrase and a reliance on secondary rather than primary sources. Both relate to the specific character of the book’s synthesis. The study relies disproportionately on secondary works (especially David Herman, Thomas Pavel, Peter Brooks, Marie-Laure Ryan, Kendall Walton, Eric Hayot and Rita Felski) with a distinct under-representation of primary theorists (the only significant example is Paul Ricoeur; some of Peter Brooks’s more original work on plot is omitted). Most often, the secondary sources are simply paraphrased and the reader is left to figure out their significance. Paraphrase should not take the place of providing a formal, theoretical model (with exhaustive definitions). And the scientific principle of going to the primary sources must always be applied. Here of course I mean the primary sources in the theoretical currents, although the paraphrasing of literary texts is just as ubiquitous in this study, and is another unfortunate practice in literary studies in South Africa extending all the way back to secondary schools. Students of literature at any level need to read the literary text, else they are just students of paraphrase and summary.

One glaring example of a neglected primary source is Roland Barthes, a pioneer of narratology. Inexplicably, he is quoted directly only once, very briefly (x), and the few other references to his work are via secondary, derivative sources (xv = several sources in footnote 19; 47 and 54 = Gerald Prince). Especially students of literature and literary theory, but the reading public too, should be encouraged to adopt the principle of studying the primary theorists and eschewing secondary sources and derivative summaries. This takes on an urgency given the synthesis of theories Burger’s book aims to achieve, also in the dialectical meaning of the word.

The synthesis positions itself mid-way between so-called classical and post-classical narratology, “die uiterstes van eksterne en interne kritiek” [the extremes of external and internal criticism] (xiv), adopting Pascale Casanova’s terminology where internal refers to the structuralist centring of the text and external is the contextual focus of later theory (xiv, 12). Although the book’s stated aim is to bridge this divide, the distinction is itself an invention by the post-classical brigade (e.g. Pavel summarised, 93). They are not post-classical so much as anti-structuralist. By adopting their thesis, the book is trapped in a very limited circular and rhetorical argument. In addition, its reliance on sources like Herman means the argument is allied in this direction and is not the synthesis it claims.

To return briefly to the assertion that structuralist narratology focuses too closely on the internal workings of narrative texts and ignores the text’s relationship to what is called the world or reality, this is patently not the case. One need go no further than S/Z by Barthes to see how the celebrated structural analysis of narrative also foregrounds the referential codes in the text: “the codes of wisdom or knowledge to which the text refers; we shall call them in a very general way cultural codes (even though of course all codes are cultural)” (Barthes, 1990:18). This is not an inward-looking closed system of textual analysis ignorant of the greater world of the text, and it is naïve to suggest that the structuralists would fetishise text at the expense of context.

Burger’s book draws deeply on kindred anti-structuralist scholars to express a rhetorical dissatisfaction with structuralism on which they have built their careers. But it seems to me, if scholars are not satisfied with the complexity and richness of structuralist analysis, they should move upstream in the epistemological currents rather than downstream. In practical terms, this means first reading the primary authors themselves (such as Roland Barthes, in the case of narratology) and avoiding the summaries and reworkings by secondary writers about the primary theory. Once this has been done, one may move further upstream towards the origins of these ideas, such as Saussure himself in the Cours/Kursus (hint: the key point of Saussure is not langue and parole, but signifier and signified) and the other “masters of suspicion” (Burger quoting Felski quoting Ricoeur, xiii – a recurring motif throughout the book) who are so crucial to modern theory. Yes, this means reading Nietzsche, Freud and Marx (for example, Genealogy of morals, The interpretation of dreams and the first volume of Capital, respectively). One is, after all, far more likely to find depth and rigour by swimming in this direction, back to the source, than by floating with the proliferating downstream flotsam and jetsam from secondary writers (tertiary, if one looks back to the masters). The study flirts with this idea in the last chapter, but the impressionistic armchair is just too seductive in the end.

It is worth asking: what type of student and future reader of literature will this book produce? Yet a further degree of derivation reliant on scare quotes, paraphrases and summaries of summaries of theory? My suggestion instead is for departments of Afrikaans literature (and linguistics!) to prescribe Lee’s Saussure to their students (Van Schaik might surely be prevailed upon to reprint this seminal text – perhaps with a worthy introduction?). And once students have mastered Saussure? Keep swimming further upstream to master the masters. Better to reign in the hell of suspicion than serve in the heaven of make-believe.



Barthes, Roland. 1990 [1973]. S/Z. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Burger, Willie. 2018. Die wêreld van die storie. Pretoria: Van Schaik.

Hambidge, Joan. 2018. Review of Die wêreld van die storie. http://joanhambidge.blogspot.com/2018/03/resensie-willie-burger-die-wereld-van.html Date of access: 13 May 2019.

Koen, Dewald. 2019. Review of Die wêreld van die storie. https://www.litnet.co.za/die-wereld-van-die-storie-deur-willie-burger/ Date of access: 13 May 2019.

Roux, Alwyn. 2018. Review of Die wêreld van die storie. Tydskrif vir letterkunde 55(2):182-184.