‘On Difficulty in Early Modern Literature’: a symposium

Event Date: 
26 Oct 2018 to 27 Oct 2018

king’s college London


2018 marks the fortieth anniversary of George Steiner’s influential essay ‘On Difficulty’ (1978), an attempt to provide a taxonomy of difficulty and to argue for its central importance in literature and philosophy. Steiner’s four categories of difficulty will offer a starting-point for discussion during a two-day symposium, ‘On Difficulty in Early Modern Literature’, to be held at King’s College London. While Steiner focuses on ‘western poetry since the renaissance’, we will trace how the concept develops through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, following the first use of ‘difficulty’ as meaning ‘hard to understand’. Our conference brings together literary scholars, historians, biographers, editors and translators to discuss ‘difficulty’ as an aesthetic, critical and ideological category in early modern literature and thought. We ask why authors might deliberately write works which are difficult to understand; whether difficulty is always élitist; and whether complexity-seeking scholars might create difficulty, forming a puzzle so that they can be the ones to solve it. Confirmed speakers include: Peter Auger, Jeff Dolven, Mary Ann Lund, Joe Moshenka, Victoria Moul, Kathryn Murphy, Jennifer Richards, Elizabeth Scott-Baumann and Nigel Smith. The event is co-organized by Professor Sarah Knight (University of Leicester) and Dr Hannah Crawforth (King’s College, London).