Mem û Zîn Analytical Study*: III, 1 – On defining literary genres

Analytical Study of Mem û Zîn

By Dr Kamal Mirawdeli:

‘Love and Existence: Analytical Study of Ahmadi Khani’s Tragedy of Mem û Zîn’

Part III: The genre of Mem û Zîn as Tragedy

Chapter One: On defining literary genres

As we showed in the first part of this study, Mem û Zîn is generally, though mostly arbitrarily, described as ‘epic’; while Chyat’s opinion is that Khani’s Mem û Zîn does not, on the one hand, meet the established requirements of the epic genre and, on the other hand, Khani, according to him, has done no more than re-tell the folkloric narrative of Mem û Zîn with slight initial changes.

In discussing Chyet’s opinion I suggested calling Mem û Zîn an anti-epic epic but this does not help in defining its genre in a way that would allow us to critically and systematically define its literary and technical characteristics and distinctive features. Of course, the nature, content, style and artistic value of a work do not depend on its generic definition. Khani describes his work as an original creative child of his intellect and he expects the reader or critic to understand, analyse and appreciate it as such. Nevertheless identifying its genre will no doubt be a great help in understanding the work critically.

Scepticism regarding the utility of all generic criticism was long-standing in twentieth-century criticism. Palmer (1992) presents various critical approaches that express this criticism. He writes: “As early as 1902, the Italian critic Benedetto Croce called into question the applicability of any designation of genre which, by his definition, is mechanical imposition on individual works of art that in truth are inherently intuitive, organic, and individualistic.” Then Palmer quotes from his later work, Brevario de Estetica (1913): “Inasmuch as every work of art expresses a state of mind, and inasmuch as a state of mind is individual and always new, intuition implies infinite intuitions, which it is impossible to fit into a set of pigeonholes for genres, unless the set itself is composed, too, of infinite pigeonholes, and, thus, no longer pigeonholes for genres, but for intuitions (p.44).

According to Croce, genre might be useful as a mnemonic tool but not as a critical device. As J. E. Spingarn, Croce’s chief American apologist, stated in Creative Criticism and Other Essays (1917-1931), “There are not, therefore, only three, or ten, or a hundred literary kinds; there are as many kinds as there are individual poets” (p. 23).

T. R. Henn, in The Harvest of Tragedy (1956/1966), asserted that “there neither is nor can be any definition of tragedy that is sufficiently wide to cover its variant forms in the history of world literature” (p. 282).

Commenting on the above sceptic approaches, Palmer explains that “much of this suspicion of genre was a holdover from an even earlier reaction against the prescriptive rigidness of neoclassical genre theory, which measured works against pre-existing standards and insisted on the mutual exclusiveness or ‘purity’ of genres. Warren Austin, in Theory of Literature (1949), which he edited with Rene Wellek, met this problem by differentiating ‘classical’ genre theory from a modern approach that is more descriptive: “It doesn’t limit the number of possible kinds and doesn’t prescribe rules to authors. It supposes that traditional kinds may be ‘mixed’ and produce a new kind (like tragi-comedy)” (p. 245).

While I totally reject any notion of ‘purity’ of genres and thus measuring the individuality of a literary work by pre-existing norms and standards, I think that defining a genre of a work of art and thus utilising all the critical insights and systematization strategies historically produced in relation to such genres, will have clear definite critical advantages.  As Jonathan Culler says, in Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature (1975), it will help us to focus on the linguistic and critical assumptions that underline any genre:

“A genre, one might say, is a conventional function of language, a particular relation to the world which serves as norm or expectation to guide the reader in his encounter with the text. To read a text as a tragedy is to give it a framework which allows order and complexity to appear (p. 136)”.

It is precisely for this functional reason: to identify a critical framework which allows the order and complexity of Khani’s Mem û Zîn to become more analytical and understandable, I think it is important to define its genre first as Tragedy.

Modern and Aristotle’s definition of tragedy

It is impossible, I think, for any attempt at defining tragedy to avoid including, intersecting or overlapping with Aristotle’s definition of the elements and properties of tragedy. For example a modern definition offered by Kaufman in his Tragedy and Philosophy (1968) draws greatly on the Aristotlian elements (See Palmer, 1992). We just quote this definition to assert the continued inevitable influence of Aristotle’s definition:

”Tragedy is (1) a form of a literature that (2) presents a symbolic action as performed by actors and (3) moves into the center immense human suffering, (4) in such a way that it brings to our minds our own forgotten and repressed sorrows as well as those of our kin and humanity, (5) releasing us with some sense (a) that suffering is universal–not a mere accident in our experience, (b) that courage and endurance in suffering or nobility in despair are admirable–not ridiculous–and usually also (c) that fates worse than our own can be experienced as exhilarating. (6) In length, performance ranges from a little under two hours to about four, and the experience is highly concentrated (p. 85)”.

In Elements of Tragedy (1969), Kirook postulated a sequence of five elements necessary to tragedy: (1) an act of shame or horror that produces (2) suffering, out of which is generated (3) knowledge, in the sense of “insight into, understanding of man’s fundamental nature or the fundamental human condition,” but with (4) an affirmation, or reaffirmation, of the dignity of the human spirit and the worthiness of human life. This leads to the fifth factor, which adds the broadest dimension: “We are made to feel that, through the affirmation of man and the life of man, there is at the same time being affirmed an order of values transcending the values of the human order. This order of values is not, or is not felt to be, a mere projection of the human mind: it is felt to have a real, objective existence–an existence independent of, other than, and antecedent to man and the life of man. At the same time, however, it has the closest bearing on the life of man, in particular on the conduct of men; therefore, it is properly described as moral–a moral order, in the most inclusive sense of the term (pp. 14-15)”.

I believe that Aristotle’s definition of tragedy is the most original, comprehensive and insightful one and it is more applicable to the description of the tragic elements of a classical literary work such as Khani’s Mem û Zîn. Therefore I will try to provide a succinct account of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy before moving to the identification of the genre of Khani’s work as a fully-fledged tragic drama in both the Aristotelian and modern senses of the term. I use for the following analysis the Penguin version of the translation of Aristotle’s Poetics with an analytical introduction by Malcolm Heath (Heath, 1996).

‘Love and Existence: Analytical Study of Ahmadi Khani’s Tragedy of Mem û Zîn’by Dr Kamal Mirawdeli is published by the Khani Academy in association with authorhouse, uk. The hard cover, soft cover, or the electronic edition of the book can be ordered from:

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