Olavo de Carvalho

Translated by Pedro Sette Câmara

Author’s note to the first brazilian edition (1991)
I. Formulating the question
II. Some contemporary opinions
III. The mode of existence of genres
IV. Ontological foundations
V. Verse and prose
VI. Narrative and exposition
VII. Species of the narrative genre
VIII. Species of the expository genre
IX. The lyrical genre. Conclusion

Author’s note to the first brazilian edition (1991)

The text of this small book is composed of four classes, delivered in April 1987 in my course Introduction to Intellectual Life. In the oral exposition I was able to add comments and developments which, even though omitted from the book, can be hinted at by the footnotes.

Now, looking from a distance of four years at this work so full of good intentions as it is of faults, I noticed at least two which, if cannot be completely remedied, should at least be confessed.

The first is the use of the plural form which some call ‘modest’ and others ‘majestic’, a vice I have forever abandoned.

The second is that the concept of number, so fundamental to my exposition, remained vague and obscure. Perhaps the following clarifications will help it become more exact: The concept of number, as I understand it, is at the same time quantity (or a pure nexus undetermined in terms of quality, as Husserl defined it in his Philosophy of Arithmetic) and form, or qualitative number as understood by the ancient Pythagoric school (see Santos, Mário Ferreira dos. Pitágoras e o Tema do Número. 2nd ed. São Paulo: Matese, 1965. pp. 67-105). In this second meaning, number can also be synonymous with order and relation (or system of relations). In the text, I go from one meaning to the other without any ceremony or previous warning. I know that I explain it, even though I do not justify it, by saying that the text was originally intended to be read only by my students, who, being used to the double understanding of the word, would not face any difficulty in making the correct choice according to the context.

I thank Ana Maria Santos Peixoto for the priceless effort she devoted to the publishing of this book.

Olavo de Carvalho

Rio de Janeiro, August 1991.

The question of the literary genres has been disputed for centuries. It is one of the most important matters in the Theory of Literature. While excusing ourselves from the narration of the historical evolution of the debate, we will present a summary of the problem and of the solutions we will offer.

Should those solutions seem scandalously new to scholars in the field, we assure that any attempt to novelty is far from our intention. We have limited ourselves to applying to the study of an old question the ontological principles which are old as the world.

I. Formulating the question

The first reason we have to believe that there are the literary genres is that many authors, such as Aristotle and Boileau, have written treatises to expose the rules that define them.

The second reason is that these rules have been followed by thousands of writers for many centuries, and so, for that reason, we are able to find works which perfectly exemplify the classic conception of Lyric, Tragedy etc.

The first reason we may have for believing there are no the literary genres is that there is an equally large amount of works, old and modern, but above all modern, that do not fit perfectly in any of the genres defined by the treatises.

The second reason is that some authors, the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce as a case in point, say that genres do not exist . In the understanding of these authors, only individual works exist1, which are taken account of by history, and a posteriori can be subjected by the scholar to some dubious classification according to their differences and similarities, which, being in their turn so varied and large in number as the works themselves, do not amount to groups constant and distinct enough to be labelled as ‘genres’.

The third reason is that many writers, knowing the first two reasons, decided to write their books in a way that deliberately escapes the rules and regulations of all known genres. Thus exception has become rule and rule exception; and the systematic mess that followed seemed to provide extensive confirmation to Croce’s argument.

The problem of genres is similar to the dispute between Realism and Nominalism: do universal concepts express realities which exist by themselves, extra mentis, or are they just a mental assembling of common characteristics that a more or less happy circumstance allowed us to distinguish in various individual beings? Are universals ‘real beings’ or mere ‘reason beings’? Is there a horsehood or just horses? Is there a trianglehood or just triangles? Likewise, are the literary genres universal and necessary structures underlying all possible literary invention, or are they nothing more than mere formal conventions laid down by habit, comfort, and sometimes by pretentiousness?

II. Some contemporary opinions

Some contemporary scholars are inclined to compromising solutions. In their work, Theory of Literature, today a classic, René Wellek and Austin Warren state that.

The literary kind is an ‘institution’ – as Church, University or State is an institution. It exists, not as an animal exists or even as a building, chapel, library, or capitol, but as an institution exists. One can work through, express oneself through, existing institutions, create new ones, or get on, so far as possible, without sharing in polities or rituals; one can also join, but then reshape, institutions.

Theory of genres is a principle of order: it classifies literature and literary history… by specifically literary types of organization and structure…

Do genres remain fixed? Presumably not.’2

This position deserves the credit of distinguishing between a physical, individual mode of existence, and a non-physical, or ‘institutional’ mode of existence, putting genres in the latter. It is certainly better than denying the existence of genres after looking for signs of them where they were not to be found. However, all in all, this distinction is no other than the same there is between individual works and genres – between horses and horsehood -, names only changing. Individual works exist like animals and buildings exist; genres, like institutes of zoological research and schools of architecture. That does not absolutely explain where genres come from, or whether they emanate from a necessity inherent to the real order of things, or from a mere human desire of systematisation and comfort. The problem continues: in order to know about the origin and worth of zoology institutes, it is not enough just to realise they are not a kind of animal.

The Brazilian critic Masaud Moisés, giving a very up-to-date account of this debate, comes a little closer to the solution when he says that genres are born from ‘a kind of natural imposition, something like the adjustment of the individual to the cosmic rhythm, marked by an unchanging regularity’3. However, even though he explains that ‘the reiteration of an expressive module obeys an innate tendency to order that exists in man’, and even though he quotes in his support Emil Staiger, to whom genres ‘represent fundamental possibilities of human existence in general’4 , he does not explain what is this ‘something’, nor what is the intrinsic relationship between genres and the cosmic rhythm. So it is that the ‘thing’, being so vague and imprecise, does not offer the least resistance to his writing lines after that that genres were ‘invented by certain writers’, apparently without realising he’s contradicting himself. In fact, were it the way he puts it, we would have to believe that until someone had the kindness of inventing genres, all writers lived outside the cosmic rhythm, and that would have been quite a disaster. It is therefore clear that we must distinguish between the ‘cosmic phenomenon’ of genres (man’s innate tendency to reiterate certain expressive modules, in obedience to an implacable regularity of nature) and the formal concept or verbal definition of genres, which simply translates in logical language the more or less consistent appearance of this phenomenon. The concept, the verbal definition, may have been invented by men, but the actual phenomenon, if it comes from nature, was not invented by anyone, unless we are talking about God or we understand the verb ‘to invent’ in its original Latin meaning – inveniere meant ‘to discover’, ‘to find’ -, depriving it of all connotation of creation and artificial construction. And the problem in dispute is precisely that of knowing whether the concept of genres, as it has been set forth by ‘certain writers’, actually portrays a real relationship between human expressive modules and the cosmic regularity, or if, on the contrary, genres are nothing but a set of arbitrary rules, beings of reason with no fundamentum in re. If the relationship exists, genres are a necessity, a ‘constant of the human spirit’; and the fact that people eventually write books that do not fit in any genre does not deny in any way the existence of genres just like the existence of illnesses does not deny the laws of physiology, rather demonstrating them through a contrario proof: no matter how occult and disguised they may be under the thick layers of inventive and extravagant combinations, genres will always remain the fundamental principles of all literary composition. If, on the contrary, the relationship does not exist, then genres do not reflect any cosmological or ontological necessity, being nothing but a rule invented after the preferences of a certain time, which we may follow or not as we please, running no risk at all of subverting the cosmic order.

The whole problem amounts, therefore, to knowing if there are ontological or cosmological laws of which genres are an extension, a manifestation or expression at the level of the literary and linguistic microcosm, or if they just do not exist at all.

III. The mode of existence of genres

In our understanding, such laws do exist; and the mode of existence of genres, if it is not similar to that of animals, is neither similar to those of ‘institutions’ of human society, which are contingent and more or less conventional. Genres exist, not like the Rotary Club or the city budget, but in the same way that the laws of logic exist. These laws are immutable in themselves, but can be indefinitely applied and combined, even in ways that can lead to perfectly illogical results. The fact that people may perform wrong ratiocinations does not prove that they are thinking ‘without’ logic, but only that they, even with logic, think poorly, being unable to handle the laws of reason, which they even so cannot escape; for, if they could, their illogical reasoning would never allow itself to be refuted as being wrong, since there would be no criteria for correct reasoning; and, actually, the study of wrong ratiocinations is part of the science of logic.

The literary genres neither exist ‘in themselves’, like substances in the scholastic understanding of the word, neither are a posteriori generalisations obtained from more or less fortuitous similarities among individual works, neither rules dictated by the arbitrary taste of an age. They are sets of possibilities5 for the organisation of literary works. Their mode of existence and action consists in establishing the boundaries of the possibilities of literary invention, differentiating it in a certain number of directions and orientations which, once taken, necessarily bring specific consequences to the posterior development of the work, restricting the author’s range of arbitrary decision; and the ability the author possesses to account for these consequences without distancing himself from his central goal produces a final standard of internal coherence, which is the means which will render us able to judge the work according to its own laws, freely chosen by the author among the number of possible genres and combinations.

We can say that genres exist and differ among themselves like the directions of space. If a man goes North, he necessarily distances himself from South; and even though he might come and go as many times he wants, North will always be opposite to South, and perpendicular to East and West. The pattern of the trail depends on each one’s liberty, but it is necessarily staked out by the extreme directions. Genres are thus the extreme differences among the many possibilities of literary structuring; as we advance ourselves coherently along one of those lines of direction, the harder – but never impossible – it becomes to combine it with others: the more the essential nucleus of a work is strictly committed to the rules of a genre, the harder it will be, in composing the rest, to escape those rules or to combine them in a creative and effective manner with those of some other genre. It is like a chess game: once a direction for the game is defined, an ever greater skill is required to be able to revoke the consequences which threaten to follow irrevocably suit at every new turn6 . The artist’s ability consists either in coherently following up to the end the rules of the chosen direction, or in intelligently combining them with other possible directions7 , creating mixed textures. However, even in the richest and most inventive mixture, the laws of genres would, at least latently, always remain active as articulating principles and minimum elements of which the mixture is composed.

But Wellek and Warren’s emphasis on the difference between the mode of existence of individual works and that of genres still can prove worth a look. Individual works are beings, or substances, produced by man. They exist because they were written, and they only exist after being written. Genres, in their turn, are sets of possibilities, and as such exist before and independently of anyone doing anything whatsoever. For a possibility to exist, it is enough that it not be impossible – and being theoretically possible, escaping the absolute impossibility even if through a little tiny fringe of possibility, is certainly easier than actually writing a book, as anyone who has ever tried knows well. For a set of possibilities to exist, it is enough that it remains sufficiently distinguishable from other sets; for the mode of existence of a set of possibilities consists in nothing more than being a clear standard of differentiation between some possibilities and others; as long as this difference exists, the set exists. If that is so, genres are indestructible, no matter how many mixed works are written and how difficult it may become, in practice, to distinguish them inside the mixture. Only the absolute impossibility – in theory, not in practice – would authorise us to speak of the ‘non-existence of genres’. But this will obviously never happen, because genres derive from an ontological necessity, that is, from the conditions that stake out and determine the physical cosmos wholly considered; and their suppression, were it possible, would result in an actual cosmic mess. It is not by chance that the difficulty to define genres and the following proclamation of their extinction arrive at the peak of an age that harbours every sort of eschatological omens.

IV. Ontological foundations

The modern quest for ‘interdisciplinarity’ sometimes makes us forget that, for the ancient peoples, all knowledge was always interdisciplinary. They simply could not conceive of some ‘specialised’ piece of knowledge, independent from universal principles, through which each science always maintained a net of necessary relations with all other sciences, not mattering whether they were neighbour, superior or subordinate to each other.

In order to understand correctly even the smallest and most particular concept of Aristotelian, Scholastic, Chinese or Islamic sciences, it is necessary to render it back to the universal, metaphysical principles in which it is grounded, for any such concept never is anything other than their explanation or example in a specific and restricted domain8.

After that, it is necessary to find out what is the level, what is the place of this concept – of the thing conceptualised – in the ‘great chain of Being’, that is, in the scale of planes of reality that descend from the Absolute to the most particular and contingent domains of experience. The acceptance of metaphysical principles in every science, and a cosmology that divides the universe in an indefinite number of planes or concentric spheres, are characteristics present in all ancient or traditional cultures.

If we do not consider this, any concept of the ancient science we might study will be floating in space like some gratuitous and inexplicable enigma, an arbitrary creation of a primitive and barbaric mind that turned science into a slave of taste and fantasy. And obviously we do not believe that contemporary men are the first intelligent people ever to appear on the face of this Earth, or that the fact that we came after the ancients grants us a feeling of superiority absolutely unjustified by our deeds. Much of the modern attitude towards genres comes simply from the ignorance of their ontological foundations in the old science.

The metaphysical principal par excellence is the Absolute, or Infinite, or Universal Possibility. The Infinite – as we will call it from now on – is a necessarily unique principle (for we cannot conceive of two infinites), unlimited in every direction, necessary by definition (for a contingent infinite would be a limited infinite, therefore finite). We speak of the metaphysical Infinite and not of a presumed ‘mathematical’ infinite, which is limited to quantity and for that very reason is not an infinite properly speaking, but only a metaphorical one, or of second degree: infinitum secundum quid, ‘infinite under a certain aspect’, as used to say the Scholastics9.

The Infinite comprises and transcends, in its absolutely unlimited possibility, all dimensions and directions of the finite. And finite beings, being derived from the Infinite, thus can neither be identical to it, nor be radically different from it, that is, not have any point of contact with it. Beings are neither identical nor different from Infinite: they are analogous to it. The main connection between finite beings and the Infinite is the notion of oneness, which is a characteristic common to both. All that exists has oneness, because if it does not possess oneness, it is two and therefore has no consistency, no cohesion. The attribute ‘being’ and the attribute ‘oneness’ are, for that reason, said to be mutually convertible: to all that is attributed being, is also attributed oneness and vice-versa. Ens et unum convertuntur. However, the oneness of the Infinite is absolute (being inseparable) and simple (not being composed of parts), whereas that of finite beings is composite (always being constituted of parts or aspects) and relative (being separable, when the being is extinguished)10.

Hence that every finite being, whatever be its place in the ‘great chain of Being’, has with Infinite two kinds of simultaneous relationships: on the one hand, the essential continuity, that is, the ultimate oneness of its essence with the Infinite’s essence, for we could not, without contradiction, conceive of a being which essence is totally separated from Infinite; on the other hand, the existential discontinuity, because finite beings, being one with Infinite through their essence, are distinguished and distanced from it according to their conditions, forms, levels, planes and modes of existence, which, descending from universality to particularity, from necessity to contingency, from permanence to fleetingness, compose precisely what is called ‘the great chain of Being’11.

Thus from the absolute limitlessness of Universal Possibility to the most restricted areas of contingent existence are disposed successive degrees of possibility, or ‘worlds’. Each one of these worlds is therefore defined by a set of limitations or conditions that define what, in their proper domains, is possible or impossible.
That which we call ‘our world’, the world of sensible human experience, is defined by three conditions: time, space, and number or quantity. There is nothing, in the whole extent of the physical world, that is not subjected to the imperious law that ordains it to be in some place and not in other, during some time and no more, and to be limited to a certain quantity under all aspects12.

These limitations evidently do not befall only on beings, but on all their actions and manifestations as well. So it is that human intelligence, even though it may even be able to grasp some mysterious, instantaneous and unexpressed realities that are well above the conditions of time, space and number (without which it would never be able to grasp the notions of ‘Infinite’ or ‘essence’), will have to subject itself to these same conditions in order to be able to manifest or express itself, in the form of thought, speech or action. Now, the written manifestations of the human mind would not be able to escape these universal conditionings, nor how to exist without differentiating themselves in patterns defined according to time, space and number. These patterns are precisely the principle of genres.

The three ‘conditions of bodily existence’ mentioned by the traditional and particularly Hindu doctrines frame and shape all structures of human perception and action. For that very reason there is not, among all functions of perception and action, any one that cannot, ultimately, be reduced – at least in its logical concept – to some modality of number, space and time (eg. vision remits us to simultaneity, hearing to succession, walking to succession, apprehension to simultaneity, generation to number etc.). The same, necessarily, happens with language. From the basic distinction between name (simultaneity) and verb (succession), everything refers to combinations and complications obtained from these three principles. Similarly, when man first began to write down his thoughts, the modalities in which he could do it had to be differentiated according to the three conditions of bodily existence.

V. Verse and prose

The most general of genres, comprising all others (and for the same reason, being ‘genres of genres’, should be more properly named categories) are verse and prose. The distinction between verse and prose mirrors on the level of the literary microcosm the condition of ‘number’ or quantity. No matter what scholars may have been saying for the past hundred years in endless discussions, the fact is that the distinction of verse and prose is only a distinction between the two most general forms of quantity, continued and discontinued. A verse is a verse as long as some principle of discontinuity or sectioning, be it either rhythmic or metric, prevails, performing some sort of sound reiteration; and prose is prose as it flows without ever returning. Verses are like rain drops, sprinkling repetitively, whereas prose is a river running without interruption. Hence there is a certain ‘superiority’ in verse, because it ‘comes from the heavens’ like the discontinued and enigmatic speech of angels and oracles, whereas prose slides along the ground like the everyday talk of men.

This distinction reflects, therefore, the principles of the essential continuity and the existential discontinuity between the Infinite and the finite.

The traditional symbol of the circle can make it all the more clear. If we represent Being, unique and infinite, by a point, the rays that emanate from it represent its distinct possibilities of manifestations in many directions; they are the qualities or properties that prolong its essence without being separated from it. If, from this point, we draw many concentric circles, they will represent the various levels of nearness and farness in which every point and segment of the rays can be in relation to the central point. The rays represent the essential continuity, and the circles the existential discontinuity; the rays, the oneness of reality; the circles, the multiplicity of planes or levels13. This figure applies to the distinction of verse and prose in a double way, according to the rule of traditional symbolism that always allows for the coexistence of direct and inverse symbolism14. We can say, on the one hand, that the rays express the continuous flow of prose, and their sectioning by the concentric circles the rhythm of verse. On the other, we can see the figure in reverse sense, and say that prose revolves or goes about continuously like planets in their orbit, and that the rays of verse section or scan rhythmically these circles according to the directions of space.

The possible combinations of distinct shades of verse and prose must not make us lose the essential distinction, because every combination, no matter how complex, will always be made of continued and discontinued elements.

The most recent critical trend is to forget the key role of the quantitative factor – metric or rhythmic – in the distinction of verse and prose, and to search for a semantic type of distinction. That is, with or without metrics and rhyme, a text is considered to be ‘poetic’ or ‘prosaic’ according to whether a ‘connotative’ or ‘denotative’ use of language prevails; verse is supposed to speak in modo obliquo and prose in modo recto15. This new distinction arose from the need to account for the great amount of works written without any commitment to metric. But, on one side, denotation and connotation are nothing but the semantic equivalents of continuity and discontinuity, as we can see from the direct or indirect – continued or discontinued – reference from signifier to signified. On the other, this is a derived and secondary distinction, and not a primary one. For millennia, poetic works have possessed metrics and rhyme, being either connotative or denotative (even treatises on science and philosophy, which semantically we would call prosaic, were written in poetic forms, without calling the attention of anyone). We could admit, so as to wrap up the question, a fourfold classification, patterned after the crossing of semantic and phonetic criteria: thus, we would have continued-connotative and continued-denotative; discontinued-connotative and discontinued-denotative; and the gradations of these four would easily account for all possible combinations without further complications, which by the way could have been solved from the beginning by the realisation of the ambiguous meaning of the word ‘prose’, understood as opposed, on one side, to ‘verse’, and on the other, to ‘poetry’.

However, according strictly to their origin, verse and prose are not modes of signification, but rather modes of elocution. To avoid any further confusions, we’ll say that an intensely ‘connotative’ text lacking in any sort of rhythmic or metric reiteration, is not verse: it is poetic prose or something alike; and a purely ‘denotative’ text, such as some purely prosaic and informative lines in the tragedies of Shakespeare and Racine – not to speak of the old treatises of Geometry and Physics composed in rhyme – is verse. In short: continued text, either connotative or denotative, is prose; and discontinued text, either connotative or denotative, is verse, be it ‘poetic’ or not. If anyone wishes to change that, preferring to employ the semantic criterion, it will not make the least difference; only, in behalf of clarity, we recommend bearing in mind that the distinction of verse and prose refers primarily to elocution, and secondarily (metaphorically, or secundum quid) to signification; and that in going from the direct employment of a concept to its metaphorical employment it is necessary to make adjustments and compensations in order to avoid cheap, mechanical and unintelligent transpositions.

From this point of view, we’ll see that theoretically all the literary genres can be indifferently put into prose or verse (or in distinct gradations in a combination), and that they in fact have been, according to the taste and the preference of the ages. If today it seems a bit strange to write treatises on Physics with metrics and rhyme, to the ancient Greeks symbolist poetic prose would not seem less strange.

We insist that the existence of various gradations of mixture, and even of nearly undecomposable mixtures, does not change anything of the general concept: the fact that Northeast is neither to the North nor to the East does not suppress the existence of North and East, which must remain in place in order for someone to be able to stand in the Northeast. The obsessive cult of exceptions – which ultimately can always be reduced back to the rule, if such a work were worth – does not come from any other thing than the taste for what Ortega y Gasset used to call ‘the philosophy of grey cats.’

Before we enter the discussion of specific genres, we must explain that the distinction of genres is altogether different from that of verse and prose. It is a two-folded difference:

1. Verse and prose are differentiated according to number – or order, or relation -; whereas the literary genres are differentiated as they reflect the categories of space and time and the various modalities of space and time. Verse and prose are ‘categories’, or genres of genres; they comprise all genres just as number comprises space and time.

2. If genres are bodies of possibilities, and if these bodies are distinct from each other, then each body defines itself as a principle or rule for the structuring of matter taken as a whole, while verse and prose are principles for the structuring of the smallest parts – sentences and periods – separately considered. A tragedy is a tragedy because the totality of the events narrated necessarily concurs for a tragic outcome according to the rule of tragedy, even though there may be, here and there, along the work, pleasurable or comic elements. But verses are verses because their sentences are sectioned and sewn, one by one, according to some kind of reiterative module; and prose is prose because its sentences follow each other in a continuing flow, with no commitment to reiteration. In order to know whether a work is written in verse or prose, it is enough to read some paragraphs, or even to just look at the text’s disposition in the page, whereas to know whether a work is a comedy or a tragedy, unless it is stated on the cover, we must read it entirely and get to know the intimate connections among its elements and levels of meaning.

Genres, as we were saying, are bodies of possibilities for the combination of literary matter, and these bodies distinguish themselves from each other as they reflect in their inner structure the two other great dimensions of bodily existence: time and space. Hence the first great division of genres: the temporal or successive mode is expressed in the narrative genres, and the spatial or simultaneous mode in the expository genres. The internal subdivisions of these genres – or, if you will, their species – will be defined, therefore, according to the many modalities of space and time, modalities which, in their turn, are distinguished by number: continued and discontinued. Continued – or unterminated – time, discontinued – or terminated – time: such is the criterion for the distinction of the narrative genres. Continued space – or encompassing totality -, discontinued space – or subdivided in distinct places -: such is the criterion for the distinction of the expository genres.

VI. Narrative and exposition

If, as we were saying, the narrative genres manifest the dimension of time, they can, in principle, be rendered either in verse or prose by the very fact that this dimension contains an aspect of continuity as well as another of discontinuity: time flows irrevocably and uninterruptedly, but is sectioned by the quantitative and qualitative distinction of its various moments.

Similarly, expository genres can appear in verse or prose as they reflect continued extension or the differentiation in dimensions, planes, places, lines and points (the point, in geometry, coincides both structurally and symbolically with the temporal notion of ‘moment’ and the arithmetical notion of ‘zero’. It is in this ‘zero’ that dimensions meet, it is in it that their differentiation according to quantitative patterns of continuity of discontinuity begins).16

In order to understand what we are about to say it is necessary to bear in mind that these principles of genres are ontological and not psychological; they need not be present in the author’s mind as he writes his work; they stay, so to speak, behind the act of literary creation, staking out its field of possibilities. Any author who is deeply aware of these principles certainly can make deliberate use of them as technical elements; however, even if he does not have the slightest idea about them, they will nevertheless exercise their delimitating action. It may also happen that the artist harmonises himself with them in a totally unconscious way, sufficing that he remains faithful to the formal intention that is his inspiration, for making art is but to give form, and man cannot give form but according to his own form of existing, perceiving, and making.

We say that the narrative genre expresses the dimension of time not because all narratives elapse in a uniform flow of time, but rather because even though they may consist of a continued duration, or of a crossing of psychological lapses of time, or of comings and goings between past and present, or of moments of minimum and indefinite extension atomistically taken, and not mattering the immense variety of the modes for the treatment of time in historical or fictional narratives, the most important structuring factor of the narrative is time, and the narrative is the narrative because of it and of nothing else.

The eventual interference of expository or spatial elements – as it happens, for example, in the description of settings, in the profiles of characters, or even in the small philosophical essays that authors such as Tolstoi and Dostoievski insert in their novels – does not deprive the work of anything of its narrative character; their presence is explained, ultimately, by the fact that for man there is no other way to perceive and represent time than through the reference of a spatial frame and some movement in it, as anyone who possesses a clock may realise. Strictly speaking, there is no ‘pure narration’, made only of succession, without any reference to space or simultaneity. Time is time and space is space, but man is man, and in him these two dimensions cross, articulated by number or order.

Likewise, expository genres are ‘spatial’ to the extent that they reflect the simultaneousness of the elements in a logical (or ontological, for it is the same thing) hierarchy. The expository genre is shaped by logical order, abstracting itself, in principle, from the temporal element, from chronological succession. However, just like there is no ‘pure narrative’, there is no ‘pure exposition’, because the oral or written exposition of an idea, even when this idea has been grasped in a completely simultaneous way, demands that it be successively unfolded in the forms of reason and speech. Here, impurity too comes from the nature of things: being symbols or manifestations of the cosmic dimensions of space and time, genres could not possess all the notes that define these dimensions, because in that case they would be identical, and not analogous17.

VII. Species of the narrative genre

The narrative genres will then differentiate themselves in species according to their internal divisions or modes of temporality. These modes are expressed basically through verbal tenses.

The two major modalities of time are defined by the two forms of quantity: continued and discontinued. In almost every ancient language – such as Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit and Greek, for example – verbal tenses are divided in two basic forms: one that expresses continuing verbal action, pure flow, without reference to any specific moment, being a kind of ‘continuous present’ that speaks of an action more or less perennial or cyclical; and a second one that expresses verbal action fixed in a moment of time. Therefore, these two forms manifest, respectively, continuity and discontinuity. This division is quite varied in all languages, but always follows a basic pattern. In Greek, as a case in point, there are primary verbal tenses and one secondary tense: primary tenses are present, past and future, which place the action in distinct moments; the secondary tense is called aoristo, or pure verbal action. In Arabic, the division is even more radical, only two tenses being acknowleged strictly speaking: terminated (mádi’), ‘action terminated in a remote time, which result is manifested at this moment’, and unterminated (mudari), ‘which action does terminate in the present, continuing into the future’18; there is also the imperative (‘amr), completely independent from tense and time. Sanskrit follows a division more or less similar to that of Greek.

In order to understand these properties of the ancient languages, and their consequences for the theory of genres, it is necessary to be acquainted with the traditional doctrine of ‘triple time’, which can be found with insignificant variations in the metaphysical teachings of Greece and the East. According to this doctrine, the relations between time and being are echeloned in planes or levels. The highest is eternity, the complete non-existence of time or any kind of flow, the absolute simultaneousness of all moments. Universal Possibility is eternal: the transformations that go in the inferior planes do not diminish nor alter even slightly the infinitude of the possible.

In the other end, at the level of particular and sensible beings, there is temporality, the continuing and irreversible flow of individual events that are not repeated. The past does not come back; it is the realm of necessity and destiny, the realm of factum. Between these two zones there is the intermediate zone of cyclical time, a realm that, even though it is subject to flow and to ruin, is periodically reinvigorated by the restoration of the initial possibilities at the moment the cycle is closed, for it is the same moment that it is reopened. It is the realm of perenniality, the intermediate world of archetypal images, the mundus imaginalis, where they live and move according to the laws of perennial return of the mythical beings – such as the signs of the Zodiac and the characters from mythological epopées – that express in forms apprehensible by the cognitio imaginativa the archetypes that stake out possibilities of the temporal world19.

Eternity is the realm of the divine by excellence, from where descend, through the mediation of the Logos or Divine Intelligence, the determinations which, taking live forms progressively defined in the funnel of perenniality, are finally crystallised as irreversible facts in the temporal order. Eternity is fiat; temporality, factum; and perenniality, the perpetual in fieri.

Structurally, therefore, the narrative must express – not necessarily in its content nor in its technique, but always in the principle or establishing rule that makes this technique possible – either perenniality or temporality, because the imperative, the ‘amr’, is above the possibility of being narrated, or can only be narrated by the mediation of its image in perenniality.

So, just as the temporal order is the realm of particular facts, and perenniality the realm of myths and symbols which group these facts in categories that remit to Universal Possibility, the first division of the narrative genres is that existing between factual narratives and symbolic narratives. Factual narratives express what has already happened, is already finished and cannot return. Symbolic narratives express events which, even though they may be metaphorically placed in the past (as they must be in modern languages, deprived of aoristo or mudari), in reality represent possibilities destined to be reactualised. This division corresponds more or less to that which is imprecisely called ‘historical’ narrative and ‘fictional’ narrative; we say ‘imprecisely’ because what distinguishes these two species is not properly the real or fictional nature of events, but rather the fact that the reality of the historical narrative is in that the events have really happened in a past moment, whereas the ‘reality’ of fictional narrative is in the possibility of a psychological reactualisation of its symbols in the act of reading. When Carlyle tells the story of the death of Louis XV, he wants to make clear that this has already happened and will not happen again; however, when the evangelist tells the story of Christ’s death, what he has in mind is not the finished fact, but rather the possibility of its ritual reactualisation in the soul of the Christian; and Desdemona’s death, which in fact never happened, is intended to happen in the soul of the spectator when he watches the play. Now, Christ’s death was a historical fact as much as the death of Louis XV; the difference is that the evangelist talks about it as a symbol, as a repeatable archetype, while Carlyle only speaks of a past fact. Thus, the narrative of the Gospel and of Carlyle are both historical, while that of Desdemona is fictional; but the Gospel and Othello are symbolical narratives, while Carlyle’s book is a factual narrative.

The factual narrative comprises thus all the facts which, belonging to the order of temporality and irreversibility, are narrated as such. This includes the works of testimony, chronicles, and memoirs as well as works of History itself. The difference between memoirs and works of History is in the interference of a spatial factor, the narrator’s point of view. The writer of memoirs tells things from his own point-of-view, while the historian collects various testimonies (among which can evidently be his own). We can still bring in another spatial difference between the books of memoirs and those of testimony or chronicle, because the first are narrated from the point of view of the author of the actions, whereas the latter are narrated from an observer’s point of view. Even though these divisions are spatial in principle, they also have a temporal counterpart to the extent that there is a differentiation between a subjective or personal temporality and a social chronology – being therefore intersubjective.

The symbolic narrative species are also divided according to the continued and the discontinued, the terminated and the unterminated. The unterminated species is drama, which, even though narrating an action metaphorically placed in the past, reproduces it in the present by means of the actors’ performance on stage.20 The terminated modality is what we call epic, or properly narrative (myth, legend, novel, etc.), which does not reproduce the action in the present, but simply evokes it or narrates it as past21.

The species of drama is also divided according to the terminated and the unterminated. The terminated subspecies reports itself to the factum, the time that unfolds in the direction of the irreversible concatenation of causes and consequences: it is tragedy, celebrating the victory of necessity and fate over man. When, on the contrary, the chain of factum can be broken by Providence, returning to man initial possibilities which would be lost under the effect of irreversibility, we have the subspecies of comedy22.

Likewise, terminated narrative or epic genres are divided according to the modality of time that informs them:

1. The mythical subspecies expresses events that occurred ‘in that time’ (in illo tempore), that is, in the mythical time of perenniality and of the mundus imaginalis. This is the real time of the Biblical and Koranic narratives, as well as of the Greek myths.

2. At the other end, we have the novelesque genre (novels and short stories), which is definitely delimited by terrestrial temporality (no matter how creative is technical treatment the narrator gives to time).

3. Between both, we can admit an intermediate species, composed of jests and legends, which, dealing essentially with the divinisation of a human hero, establish a bridge between temporality and perenniality. Novels of ‘initiatic’ content are evidently likely to offer difficulties for classification, hesitating between the novelesque and the legendary. What’s best, in almost all cases, is to call them legends disguised as novels.

The enormous development of the novelesque species in the modern age, parallel to the retraction of legends, is a sign of the progressive loss of the sense of perenniality in our civilisation. This loss occurs concomitantly to the spread of modern European languages deprived of aoristo, and to the loss of symbolical understanding of the universe in favour of a more terrestrial experience, temporalised and empirical, in the transition from the medieval worldview to that of the Renaissance.

VIII. Species of the expository genre

Just as narratives are classified according to the continuity or discontinuity of time, the expository species are also differentiated according to the continuity or discontinuity of the spatial and simultaneous whole that represents the logical and ontological order. If the continuity and the discontinuity of time were expressed in the concepts of ‘terminated and unterminated’ and in the corresponding verbal tenses, the concepts equivalent to the spatial order are the notions of whole and part, and of inclusion and exclusion.

We will provide here but a schematic outline of the expository genre, but we believe that these minimum criteria can be indefinitely applied in successive divisions of species and subspecies, accounting for all possible combinations.

Expository works then are divided at first on those dealing with the ‘whole’ and those dealing with ‘the part’; and each of them is subdivided according to whether its subject is dealt with in an ‘including’ or ‘excluding’ manner.

The notions of ‘whole’ and ‘inclusion’ give the shape of all literary species that possess a nature of list, of index, of inventory, of accumulation and enumeration, which model is by excellence the enciclopædia. They are works that are ultimately destined to contain ‘everything’, or as much possible: de omne re scibili. Belonging to this species are all subspecies of didactic and informative works, ranging from Natural History by Plinius the Old, to the Encyclopædia Britannica, including Saint Isidore’s Etymologies.

Opposed to the indiscriminate encompassing of the list, the idea of system, or of organisation, is also aimed towards a ‘whole’, but a whole that is separated and ranked in its parts, aspects and dimensions, being therefore subjected to a sequence of ‘exclusions’. This is the treatise or systematic species. Aristotle’s Organon, for example, is a treatise, and so is the Summa Theologica by Saint Thomas of Aquinas, or Euclides’s Elements; each one these works intends to enclose the totality of a subject, but systematising it according to its constitutive and intrinsic parts, and not just list them after some casual, extrinsic and convenient order as in the encyclopædias.

On the other end, we have the works patterned after the idea of part or aspect. These are works which focus on a specific phenomenon, or group of phenomena, an idea or a particular group of ideas, without the purpose of creating a system of total knowledge. But even this approach to the part can be done according to two modalities: inclusion or exclusion.

On one side, there are the works which, dealing with a particular subject, intend to insert it in a pre-existent body of knowledge, which has already been systematised. For example, when Apolonius of Perga writes his treatise on Cones, he does not intend to build a complete geometric system, nor to just throw a few ideas: he intends to fit these ideas in a precise place of the pre-existent body of geometric science; and this goal directs and informs the treatment he gives to his subject, which must be a systematic treatment according to the concepts and norms admitted in Geometry. This species of works is denominated thesis, which comes from a Latin verb that means ‘to put’. He who makes a thesis is putting a piece in a pre-existent frame, and the piece’s shape must be perfectly adjusted to the specific hole it intends to fill.

However, if the idea to be presented has no formal or decisive commitment with a pre-existent system of knowledge, then what the author does is to freely add one more idea to the extensive and vague repertoire of human ideas. This is precisely what the species essay does.

The differentiation of the expository species may thus go on indefinitely, by means of the sheer application of the criteria of whole and part, inclusion and exclusion. There is an infinity of possible mixtures as well. It is unnecessary to proceed with the enumeration, for we believe to have proved the effectiveness of the criteria. Just to give an idea of the possibilities of developments: the essay species can be subdivided according to whether the essay is more or less committed to some pre-existent scientific criteriology: Science as Vocation, Politics as Vocation and other works collected in Weber’s Essays of Sociology differ thus from Montaigne’s Essays because the first are closer to ‘exclusion’ and the second to ‘inclusion’. And so on. It is not necessary, at this moment, to carry the criteria forward to more detailed applications.

IX. The lyrical genre. Conclusion

It really is necessary to say a word about the lyrical genre, which seems to have been mysteriously left out of our arrangement. What happens with lyric is that, strictly speaking, it is not patterned after simultaneity or succession, neither after space or time. On the contrary, it is defined precisely by its supra-spatial and supra-temporal character. Either in the form of verse or prose, lyric expresses the only terrestrial equivalent of the dimension that surpasses both perenniality and temporality; it is structured after the aspiration for eternity, and its formal module is the concept of ‘moment’, having ‘point’ as a spatial equivalent, an expression of what arithmetically is the unit.23 Lyric takes a moment in time, a point in space, and projects it in the non-time and the non-space. That in order to do this it has to make use of verbal instruments derived from space and time, from continuity and discontinuity, from the successive and simultaneous, is what defines precisely the limits of the humanly expressible and the mutual annihilation of time and space in the crossing of the ‘point’ or ‘moment’.

Lyric is, therefore, the purest expression of relation, or order, or number, that is, the dimension that articulates, comprises and contains space and time.

The literary genres, strictly speaking, are archetypical realities: they frame and guide the multiplicity of facts in literary history, without ever being manifest in their whole purity – for temporality imitates perenniality without being able to identify with it – and also without ever totally vanishing away, no matter how unrecognisable they may be behind the usually confusing multitude of particular facts and variations. The difficulty felt by the contemporary man in understanding genres and recognising them in the midst of the confusion of empirical data is exactly the same he has to find any archetypal meaning in the facts of a daily life that has been entirely trivialised and reified, cut from the realm of archetypes by the smoke and the noise of commercial and industrial instantaneousness, as well as by the polluting distortions the mass communications industry criminally introduces in the world of images and symbols. The difficulty in seeing in the subject and not in the object.


1 Croce, Benedetto. Estetica come Scienza dell’Espressione e Linguistica Generale. 11th edition. Bari: Laterza, 1965. I:IV, pp. 40-44

2 Wellek, René and Warren, Austin. Theory of Literature, 3rd. ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1956. pp. 226-227

3 Moisés, Massaud. A Criação Literária. Introdução à Problemática da Literatura. 5a ed. São Paulo: Melhoramentos, 1973. p.37

4 Staiger, Emil. Conceptos Fundamentales de Poética. Spanish translation. Madrid: Rialp, 1966. p. 213, quoted in Moisés, p. 37

5 On the notion of ‘sets of possibilities’, see Santos, Mário Ferreira dos. A Sabedoria dos Princípios, São Paulo: Matese, 1968.

6 Carlos Bousoño (Teoria de la Expresiõn Poética. 4th ed. Madrid: Gredos, 1966. pp. 31-32) remarks: ‘Each sentence the author conceives as definitive grants the poematic movement an irrevocable direction which naturally excludes, simply by the means of its existence, many others possible at the moment, from which different impulses could have arisen, and which now are inaccessible. The poem, in its development, ordains in growing proportion the general arrangement of its unfolding, and all the poet does is to particularise this arrangement, to pick a card that is offered to him from the board, less and less thick at every moment.’

7 Purism and an intelligent combination of different genres can both deliver good results. The two greatest literary works of the Portuguese literary renaissance – Antonio Ferreira’s Castro and Luís de Camões’s Os Lusíadas – follow each one these two strategies, respectively. Ferreira wished to write a tragedy that attained in the strictest fashion to Aristotelian rule, and with that he obtained the tremendous dramatic concentration that makes his play one of the works of greatest impact in Portuguese language. Camões, in his turn, unable to follow by the book the model of mythical (Homeric) epopée in face of the chosen historical topic, articulated mythical narrative with historical chronicle, producing a work with two parallel strata without match in world literature. On Os Lusíadas as an ‘impure epopée’, see Saraiva, Antônio José. ‘Os Lusíadas e o ideal da epopéia’. Para a História da Cultura em Portugal. 5th ed. Lisbon: Bertrand, Vol.I, pp. 81 ss.

8 See our ‘Introduction to the concept of traditional sciences’, in Astrologia e Religião. São Paulo: Nova Stella, 1987, Cap. IV: ‘Traditional sciences are the body of methods and knowledge which, in every known civilisation – including the West up to the sixteenth century – unfold in coherent manner in every direction from a central core of metaphysical principles, and which intend to reveal, on all more or less contingent orders of reality, the eternal and immutable validity of these same principles’ (p. 53).

9 On the distinction between ‘infinite’ and ‘mathematical infinite’ or ‘indefinite’, see Guénon, René. Les Principes du Calcul Infinistésimal. Paris: Gallimard, 1946. Chap. 1. The distinction was also highlighted by Descartes on §27 of Philosophy Principles.

10 For an exposition of Oneness from the logical and ontological point-of-view, see Santos, Mário Ferreira dos. A Sabedoria da Unidade. São Paulo: Matese, 1968; from the point-of-view of the mystic and sapiential doctrines, see Burckhardt, Titus. An Introduction to Sufi Doctrines. Wellingborough: Thorsons, 1976, Chap. VII.

11 On the concepts of essential continuity and existential discontinuity, see Schuon, Frithjof. Forme et Substance dans les Réligions. Paris: Dervy-Livres, 1975, pp. 53-86.

12 The traditional astronomical and astrological symbolism is the integral representation of the coexistence of these three conditions. See Burckhardt, Titus. Clef Spirituelle de l’Astrologie Mussulmane. Milano: Arché, 1978; and also our work ‘Natural and Spiritual Astrology’, in Astrologia e Religião, op. cit., Cap. II.

13 Cf. Bakhtiar, Laleh. Sufi. Expressions of the Mystic Quest. London: Thames & Hudson, 1979. pp. 10-11; and Guénon, René. Symboles de la Science Sacrée. Paris: Gallimard, 1962. Chap. VIII-XIII.

14 Guénon, René. Le Règne de la Quantité et les Signes des Temps. Paris: Gallimard, 1945. Chap. XXX.

15 The exclusively semantic distinction is argued by Massaud Moisés, op. cit., Chap. IV.

16 See our work ‘Questions of Geometrical Symbolism’, in Astrologia e Religião, op. cit., Chap. V; and especially the study by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy about the number zero, to be quoted later. See also Kandinsky, Wassily. Point-Ligne-Plan. Contribuition à l’Analyse des Élements Picturaux. Paris: Denoel, 1970, which, very much to our purpose, defines the geometrical point as ‘the ultimate and unique union of silence and word’ (p. 33).

17 On the subject of analogy, see our work ‘Symbolical Dialectics’, in Astros e Símbolos. São Paulo: Nova Stella, 1985. Chap. II, and also Santos, Mário Ferreira dos. Tratado de Simbólica. São Paulo: Logos, 1964. Tema III, art. 5.

18 Sáfady, Jamil. A Língua Árabe. São Paulo: Sáfady, 1950. p. 120. See also on this point Gardet, Louis. ‘Concepções muçulmanas sobre o tempo e a história’, in Paul Ricoeur et al. Brazilian translation. As Culturas e o Tempo. Petrópolis: Vozes, pp. 229-262; especially p. 232. For an explanation on Greek verbal tenses, see Horta, Guida Nedda Barata Parreira. Os Gregos e seu Idioma. Rio de Janeiro: di Giorgio, 1983. Vol. I, pp. 152-153. Aoristos literally means ‘indefinite’, ‘undetermined’. It is derived from orisma, meaning ‘limit’, ‘frontier’, ‘term’ and ‘definition’, from which are also derived the words ‘hour’ and ‘horizon’. The study of Greek myths related to the horizon as limit between Heavan and Earth shows the inseparable link between the ‘unterminated’ verbal tense – aoristo – and the perennial time of mythology. Cf. Souza, Eudoro de. Horizonte e Complementaridade. São Paulo: Duas Cidades, 1978.

19 On ‘triple time’, see Coomaraswamy, Ananda K.. French translation. Les Temps et l’Eternité. Paris: Dervy-Livres, 1976, especially the appendix ‘Kha et autres mots signifiant ‘zéro’ dans leurs rapports avec la métaphysique de l’espace’, pp. 117 ss.; and Guénon, René. La Grande Triade. Paris: Gallimard, 1957. Chap. XXII. On the restoration of possibilities, see Eliade, Mircea. Le Mythe de l’Eternel Retour. Archétypes et Répetition, Paris: Gallimard, 1969. Chapters. I and II. On the mundus imaginalis and its perfectly real inhabitants, see Corbin, Henry. En Islam Iranien. Aspects Spirituels et Philosophiques. Paris: Gallimard, 1971. T.I, pp. 167-185.

20 It is therefore obvious that film narrative is included in the subspecies ‘symbolic unterminated species’.

21 It is also obvious that romances and short stories written in the present tense are inspired in a technique that is ultimately cinematographic; and that, as in them the present tense of verbs does not grant real actuality to events which are really just being narrated and not shown, the supposed ‘present time’ is metaphorical and not real as in theatre. But, in a certain way, the ‘present time’ of film is also metaphorical, because the actors are not really acting at the moment the spectator watches the movie.

22 We see no need to deepen in the essence of every particular genre, for this is not the purpose of our work; we only intend to show the ontological foundation of the very idea of genres. Maybe it would be interesting for the reader to compare our arrangement with that of Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Critic, Chapter IV, whose angle is different from ours, but not opposed.

23 See note #16.