Once it was anathema to speak about the content of a work of art in the wake of high modernism and formalism. Critical practice has moved beyond such limits, and today the focus on themes is the hallmark of feminist, new historicist, ethnic, and even deconstructionist approaches, though that focus may not always be openly declared. This manifesto reasserts the validity of the thematic approach to criticism in our day, bringing together for the first time an international group of critics and theoreticians who have thought deeply about literary motifs and themes.
How can we determine the theme of a given text? May the focus on form be the theme of a certain moment? Can the motif be understood as a formal category? What operations permit us to say that three or four texts constitute variants of the same theme? The contributors challenge the conventional dismissal of “merely” thematic approaches and offer the reader different ways of tackling the issue of what a piece of writing is “about.”
The work here comes out of such diverse intellectual traditions as Russian film theory, French phenomenology, Foucault, narratology, the Frankfurt School, intellectual history (Geistesgeschichte), psychoanalytic criticism, linguistics, ideological criticism, Proppian folklore studies, and computerized plot summary models. In addition to a collection of aphorisms from Plato to Robert Coover and a group of general and theoretical essays, this volume contains examples of practical engagement with such topics as literary history, Shakespeare, autumn poetry, anti-Semitism, fading colors, bachelors, Richard Wagner, and the Mexican Revolution. No comparable volume exists.