A Grammar of Motives

by Kenneth Burke
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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 289

According to Armin Paul Frank, Burke’s dramatistic worldview derives from his approach to literary works as ritual drama as described and applied in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (1941). A Grammar of Motives represented the application of his literary dramatistic method to the general field of human motivation. It was this extraliterary program which Burke continued to “round out” in the major works which followed: A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (1961), and Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method (1966). Lentricchia, on the other hand, has seen A Grammar of Motives in terms of Burke’s major early works Counter-Statement (1931), Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (1935), and Attitudes Toward History (1937).

According to Lentricchia, Burke’s “comedic formalism” developed in response to a period of traumatic economic and political crisis: “The formalisms of Burke, Brooks, and de Man have a social context, and they promise . . . in the wisdom of their comedic sense of history: a secular and literary paradise . . . in which the fruit of transcendence is not the end of history but the maximum knowledge of what history is, has been, and will be, from a privileged vantage point beyond its conflicts.”

Jameson for his part observes that, in spite of the detached and ironic distance which Burke’s dramatistic analysis establishes between the observer and history, within the historical context of the 1930’s and World War IIBurke’s stress on language, far from reinforcing as it does today the ideologies of the intrinsic and of the anti-referential text, had on the contrary the function of restoring to the literary text its value as activity and its meaning as a gesture and a response to a determinate situation.

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