I have a specific question about a term from literary theory.

Can I ask it on english usage? I guess not, but it probably is more about the meaning of that term than any poem.


In my opinion this is a 'term of art' peculiar to literary criticism and indeed to a particular moment in literary criticism. It is meaningful only within the critical discipline and comprehensible only through an understanding of Eliot's poetic practise and the Symboliste poetic tradition within which he worked.

Its explication is therefore not a matter ELU should undertake, any more than we should undertake explication of technical terms from law or theology or physics.

  • i think it's open to debate whether the term cannot be understood without reading Eliot's own poetry [tho of course, not his criticism]. i would say it can. i wouldn't call Eliot a symboliste either, but that's not at all important
    – user99677
    Sep 7 '15 at 4:12
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    @user3293056 "In the tradition" I said. Eliot acknowledged that he was profoundly influenced by Laforgue and Baudelaire. And I don't think anything much can be made of what Eliot actually said about the o.c.; he was a great poet but an embarassingly slapdash critic. Sep 7 '15 at 4:21
  • yes - in the tradition. he was very influential as critic, and apparently much less rushed than his contemporaries. anyway, i don't agree that the concept shouldn't be taken seriously - but does it matter ?
    – user99677
    Sep 7 '15 at 4:24
  • one would imagine it's very closely linked to his theory of impersonality, which i think is still taught. it is like you say a term in (20th century) literary criticism, which may be off topic for this board...
    – user99677
    Sep 7 '15 at 4:32
  • I just googled lit crit "objective correlative", to find that 9 out of the first 10 results specifically referenced T Eliot in the "snippet views". So I'd say the term is highly domain-specific. Sep 8 '15 at 20:13

If your question simply were about what the term objective correlative means, I would classify it as general reference and therefore off-topic at EL&U. Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003), The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition (2000), The Random House College Dictionary, revised edition (1975), and Webster's II New College Dictionary (1999) all have entries for objective correlative, although some other dictionaries—including The Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus (2003) and Longman's Dictionary of Contemporary English, new edition (1987)—do not.

On the other hand, if (as seems likely) your question weren't about the basic sense of the term, but about some application of it to literary analysis, I think StoneyB is right that the question would be off-topic for almost the opposite reason—as being a discipline-specific term of art whose meaning depends on how it is understood not in normal English usage but in evolved academic usage.

That leaves only one area where I think EL&U might perhaps be a suitable forum for a question about objective correlative—one in which an author has applied the term in a setting unrelated to literary analysis, and the questioner presents the question along these lines (for example):

Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary defines objective correlative as "something (as a situation or chain of events) that symbolizes or objectifies a particular emotion and that may be used in creative writing as to evoke a desired emotional response in the reader." But the term doesn't seem to have that meaning in this excerpt from Antonya Nelson, "Palisades," in Female Trouble: Stories (2002):

I am a good confidante, and I'll tell you the secret: never offer advice, merely listen. You may repeat, ratify, sympathize, query, even divulge a tidbit or two, whip up the objective correlative, but you must never give an opinion about what your friend should do next. Never, never, never.

Does "whip up the objective correlative" have an objectively identifiable meaning as used in this story? If so, what is it? And what does the term "objective correlative" mean here?"

In my view, this question is not answerable by resort to general-reference sources, nor is it a matter of advanced literary theory. It's simply a question about how a standard dictionary-defined term is being employed in a particular setting. I'm sure that some EL&U participants would vote to close it anyway, on the grounds that it is essentially a request for literary interpretation, but I would be inclined to interpret it as being centrally about the meaning of the term itself as used in a particular nonspecialist context. And that, to me, is a legitimate question of English language and usage.

  • ok sure, well i asked the question and no-one voted close, which i liked. but yeah
    – user99677
    Sep 7 '15 at 20:24

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