At least since the time of Aristarchus in Alexandria, who died one hundred forty-five years before Christ, a body of knowledge or, if you prefer, a “science of literature” has been built up over the centuries. The Renaissance revived and codified it and the Romantic movement gave impetus to its enormous expansion and institutionalization in the later nineteenth century. Though deep changes in methods and emphases came about in the first half of this century, one can say that literary scholarship has flourished uninterrupted—at least in all Western countries—for roughly two centuries.
One can distinguish among three main branches of literary study. First, there is theory, which is concerned with the principles, categories, functions, and criteria of literature in general. Theory is the term now preferred to the older “poetics,” since “poetics” seems limited to writing in verse and has not shed the implication of prescriptive rules. Second, there is the study of concrete works of literature, which is sometimes identified with criticism or called “practical criticism” and which attempts to describe, analyze, characterize, interpret, and evaluate individual works of literature or groups of works, for example, of one author or in one genre. Interpretation is only one step in this process of criticism, though it has developed an enormous debate about its theory, for which the old theological term hermeneutics has been revived. And third, there is literary history, seen most frequently in the setting of political, social, and intellectual history. Literary biography is an established subgenre within literary history. These three branches of literary study implicate each other. There can be no literary theory without concrete criticism and without history; there is no criticism without some theory and history; and no literary history is possible without theoretical assumptions and without criticism.
This growing body of knowledge, immense in its ramifications, anticipates and parallels the establishment of similar disciplines, such as the study of the fine arts (sometimes included in aesthetics or developed as history of art) and the study of music, musicology, the history of music, and so on. The study of the relationships among the arts and of their common traits has been a growing concern. It leads to aesthetics and to a philosophy of art.
Today this whole edifice of literary study has come under an attack that is not merely the normal criticism of certain aspects of a changing discipline but an attempt to destroy literary studies from the inside. The attempt seems to have succeeded in certain academic circles; it has enlisted the support of a number of journals and has affected many students, apparently all over the country. It has hardly dislodged or even modified up till now the practice of the vast majority of teachers and students of literature. But it has had considerable publicity and, if it should be generally effective and find many adherents among the younger generation, may spell the breakdown or even the abolition of all traditional literary scholarship and teaching.
The whole edifice of literary study has come under an attack.
I shall try to distinguish among the different motifs and aims of the attack, which is by no means uniform or directed from a single center, either institutional or ideological.
One rather old view that has gained new prominence is the simple denial of the aesthetic nature of literature. One can doubt the very existence of aesthetic experience and refuse to recognize the distinctions, clearly formulated in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment, between the good, the true, the useful, and the beautiful. This attack on aesthetics goes back at least as far as the German theory of empathy, as Croce’s intuition-expression doctrine, as Dewey’s account of art as the experience of heightened vitality, and, in the Anglo-American critical tradition, as I. A. Richards’s claim that there is no “aesthetic mode or aesthetic state” or “aesthetic emotion” and that there is no difference between reading a poem and “dressing in the morning.” Richards held, in Principles of Criticism, that “the world of poetry has in no sense any different reality from the rest of the world and it has no special laws and no other-worldly peculiarities.” Since this argument abolishes the distinction between plays, poems, and novels on the one hand and didactic, expository, informative prose on the other, we arrive at the conclusion that literary study includes everything in print.
Long before Richards, of course, the study of literature was often conceived as the study of the whole history of civilization. In Province of Literary History (1931), for example, Edwin Greenlaw stated forcibly that “we [literary historians] are not limited to belles lettres or even to printed or manuscript records.” This expansion of literary study has been justified, in part at least, by the fact that the branches of learning which should be studying the history of thought and sensibility and of social change have at least temporarily neglected to do so. English and American technical philosophy is notoriously anti-historical and has practically abandoned the study of the history of philosophy to English departments, to the “history of ideas” in Lovejoy’s sense. And for a long time academic history departments have been preoccupied with diplomatic, military, and political events, though in recent decades one can speak of a strong revival of social and cultural history, partly under the influence of Marxism and the Annales group in France. Most of my own historical work is concerned with the history of ideas, with Immanuel Kant’s influence in England, with the history of critical ideas, with the history of historiography and of specific key terms and concepts. There is nothing wrong with this except the danger that imaginative literature might be neglected.
But the old apprehension that literary study might be absorbed in general cultural and social history is now being replaced by a very different worry. The new theory asserts that man lives in a prison house of language that has no relation to reality. It seems to be suggested, or at least buttressed, by a few passages in Nietzsche where, for example, he speaks of “truth as a mobile marching army of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms, illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions,” and by an interpretation of the Cours de linguistique générale of Ferdinand de Saussure, who considered the referential function of language irrelevant for a science of linguistics but who did not doubt language’s relation to experience and reality. In its extreme formulation, which looks for the abolition of man, denies the self, and sees language as a free-floating system of signs, the theory leads to total skepticism and ultimately to nihilism. This accusation is not simply an invention of the detractors of “deconstructionism,” as it is called. It has been expressly confirmed by its practitioners: by J. Hillis Miller writing in Critical Inquiry (1977, no. 3); by Paul de Man, who in Blindness and Insight elaborates in gloomy existentialist terms the view that poetry names the void, asserts itself as “pure nothingness”; and by Jacques Derrida, who describes the new theory as a “Nietzschean affirmation,” as the joyous affirmation of this play of the world, a world of signs, “without truth, without origin beyond-man and humanism” (in Écriture et la différance ).
The view that there is “nothing outside of text,” that every text refers or defers only to another text, ignores that texts—political, juridical, religious, philosophical, and even imaginative and poetic—have actually shaped the lives of men and thus the course of history. Denying the self and minimizing the perceptual life of man, the theory deliberately refuses to acknowledge that the relation of mind and world is more basic than language.
For literary studies, some consequences have been drawn that would spell their doom. If there is no distinction between imaginative literature and any other writing, if everything is a language game, the inclusive words écriture and “text” allow the claim that the critic is equal to the creative writer. A critic can feel himself to be on the level of Dante or Shakespeare. Actually, some of the new critics compare themselves and their friends constantly with the greatest names of the past, speaking in the same breath of themselves and of Carlyle, Ruskin, or Pater. They revive the idea of “creative criticism” propagated by Oscar Wilde. No doubt there are aesthetic features in much critical writing: composition, style, evocative skill, and so on. And there were and are critics who feel strongly that they are artists expressing or displaying their personalities. Friedrich von Schlegel, William Hazlitt, and Sainte-Beuve are obvious examples, and Oscar Wilde flaunted ostentatiously the view of the critic as artist. But the new view goes much further: it wants to make criticism indistinguishable from fiction and it does not recognize that there is a definite work of literature out there (whatever its mode of existence may be) which has to be understood, which challenges and imposes on us. In the new theories there is no object but only an event in the mind—or, rather, in the language—of the critic. The critic engages in a free play with language.
Jacques Derrida is the philosopher who, for American students, has formulated this view most impressively. He rejects the whole tradition of Western thought, which he labels a “metaphysics of presence,” by “presence” meaning its reliance on ultimate concepts such as Being, God, consciousness, self, truth, origin, and so on. He propounds the preposterous theory that writing precedes speaking, a claim reflated by every child and by the thousand spoken languages that have no written records. His view can be defended only by giving “writing” a deliberately deceptive new meaning. He argues that all philosophy is shot through by metaphors, ambiguities, “undecidables,” as is all literature and criticism. This view was welcomed by some literary critics and students as a liberation, since it gives license to the arbitrary spinning of metaphors, to the stringing of puns, to mere language games. The model praised to the sky is Derrida’s Glas, which presents, in two columns, a string of quotations from Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right alongside Genet’s Journal of a Thief. As even an admirer admits, it is “a purely speculative chain of words and associations.” In practice, it is a series of puns, beginning with the French pronunciation of Hegel as aigle (eagle) and wandering off to seigle (rye), the field the thief crosses, and to sigle (sign). The book falls between three stools: it does not give an aesthetic experience, it is not literary criticism, and it is not good philosophy. It is at most a display of ingenuity and wit, inspired (possibly) by Heidegger’s etymologizing punning, by Finnegans Wake, Dada, and Surrealism. If this were an isolated instance of the whim of a learned man, it might be harmless. Unfortunately, it has been widely imitated, with less wit and learning, and has encouraged utter caprice, extreme subjectivity, and hence the destruction of the very concepts of knowledge and truth.
In practice, of course, these absurd consequences are often avoided by theorists inventing new techniques or by their diverting attention to newly formulated problems. Thus, “deconstruction” is often an ingenious uncovering of ambiguities, contradictions, and inconsistencies in diverse texts, along with the monotonous conclusion that every work of literature is only “words about words,” literature about literature. These writers have only just discovered an old and simple truth—that words are not things. Some time ago, Jonathan Swift satirized the project of carrying around “such things as were necessary to express the particular business they are to discuss on.” These new critics refuse to understand that words designate things and not only other words as they argue.
I am no defender of the Realist dogma. I have advocated the view that Realism is only one possible style of literature and I have always recognized the fantastic, the Utopian, the grotesque, the symbolic, and many other modes of representing reality. But literature does represent reality, however distorted and transformed. It both projects a world of its own creation and tells us something about our world. The deconstructionist theory is a flight from reality, and from history. Paradoxically, it leads to a new, anti-aesthetic ivory tower, to a new linguistic isolationism. Actually, the deconstructionists often ignore modern technical linguistics. In the writings of Paul de Man, for example, “deconstruction” amounts to a study of rhetoric, understood not as a technique of persuasion but as a study of figures and tropes, metaphors and metonymy. The entire question of meaning is bracketed. Thus, at least the rudiments of literary study are preserved, as the texts of a few suitable authors are attended to: Rousseau, Nietzsche, Proust, Mallarmé, and Rilke. There is no pretense here of creative criticism.
Literature represents reality, however distorted and transformed.
The second prominent motif of the new trends is abolition of the authority of the text, the rejection of the whole ancient enterprise of interpretation as a search for the true meaning of a text. We have learned since the New Criticism to look for ambiguities and paradoxes, and Ingarden and others (myself included) have defended the view that an accrual of meaning occurs in the course of history. The possibility exists of a conflict of interpretations that cannot be completely resolved in some cases, though there is always a limit to the freedom of interpretation. All this has been endlessly debated by E. D. Hirsch, who defends the criterion of the author’s intention and the prescriptive role of genre, by J. P. Juhl, who believes that there is only one correct interpretation, and most learnedly by Hans Georg Gadamer in Wahrheit und Methode (1960) and a whole new German school of hermeneutics. The so-called Rezeptionsaesthetik or reader-response criticism has shifted attention away from the work of literature to the process of reading, to the audience. In the theory propounded by the Konstanz group (mainly Hans-Robert Jauss, a learned student of medieval French literature, and Wolfgang Iser, a specialist in the English novel) we hear of a “fusion of horizons” between that of the reader or interpreter and that of the work of art. It is a compromise between the present-day assumptions and the historical definiteness of a work. Rezeptionsaesthetik recommends some good things: paying attention to the history of taste and criticism (which, needless to say, I fully approve) and to the implied reader addressed in the text. But the theory is unable to bridge the gulf between these two problems: the reader reactions and the signs of historicity—parody, imitation, allusion, conventions—embodied in the works themselves. In practice, Rezeptionsaesthetik lands in extreme relativism, though the emphasis on certain neglected aspects of readers’ reactions seems to me welcome. But the theory of this school is not as new as it claims and is hardly a panacea for the presumed ills of literary history.
The most influential American reader-response theory, that of Stanley Fish, is another matter. It comes in several versions: in its most radical formulation it assumes that a work is completely contained in the sequential, linear reading process. It is a protest against what Fish regards as the reification and illegitimate spatialization of such concepts—or, rather metaphors—as the “verbal icon” or “the well-wrought urn.” It has led him to make—in Self-Consuming Artifacts (1972)—farfetched, forced, and sometimes demonstrably mistaken readings of seventeenth-century texts. It is restated theoretically in his 1980 collection Is There a Text in this Class? There we are told that texts are so undetermined that we cannot decide their meaning at all, that “no interpretation can be said to be better or worse than any other.” Thus, “interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing. Interpreters do not decode poems: they make them.” More recently Fish has seen that his theory leads to complete anarchy and extreme subjectivism, a consequence he tries to obviate or circumvent by an appeal to “interpretive communities.” But he merely worsens the situation. By absolutizing the power of assumptions, he empties literature of all significance. Great critics have fortunately eluded “interpretive communities,” resisted or contradicted them. Fish’s theories encourage the view that there are no wrong interpretations, that there is no norm implied in a text, and hence that there is no knowledge of an object.
A few reflections should refute this view. There are patently absurd and wrong interpretations, for example, that Hamlet is a woman in disguise or that Hamlet is “mainly King James I,” as Miss Winstanley argued. There are interpretations that can be shown to be wrong. For instance: D. H. Lawrence in his comment on Dostoevsky’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov interprets Christ’s kissing the Grand Inquisitor as meaning his acceptance of the Inquisitor’s views, “Thank you, thank you, you are right, old man.” But the kiss is rather the silent answer of religion that rejects and refutes the Inquisitor’s diatribe. Alyosha immediately afterwards kisses Ivan, forgiving him for his atheism and Ivan reacts, “This is plagiarism from my poem.” The rest of the book, the story of Zosima and Brother Markel, confirms this. Dostoevsky’s journalistic writings confirm it and so do all the later novels. One can thus correct mistaken interpretations by appealing to the context of a book, of an author’s work, and finally of a whole tradition. There are also, one should admit, puzzling cases. The end of King Lear has led to opposite conclusions. Blake’s “Tiger” and Wordsworth’s Lucy poem “A Slumber Did My Spirit Steal” have excited heated disagreements. But even here it is possible to adjudicate the differences: to explain them by the different approaches and implied assumptions of the interpreters. The Hegelian concept of tragedy assumed in A. C. Bradley will lead to different conclusions than will the Sartrean existentialist concept assumed in Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Still, there are works or passages that are ambiguous, indeterminate, and even opaque and incomprehensible; but that should be a spur to discovering meaning rather than an argument for surrender. The otherness of a text, removed in time or place or both, or simply alien to our way of thinking, is a challenge to interpretation. To draw completely skeptical conclusions is simply to doubt the very possibility of knowledge, to deny the ideal of man ever understanding himself or other human beings and their creations. The world may be dark and ultimately mysterious, but the mind of man is not so narrowly limited that it cannot understand and illuminate its own creations. Vico, in the early eighteenth century, knew that, while nature may be impenetrable to man, we can have certain knowledge of our own works in history, in poetry, and in institutions. The recent attempts to increase our self-consciousness, to make us aware of our own situation in time and place, to see the “pre-senticentric predicament,” to use the unlovely coinage of A. O. Lovejoy, is valuable if it diminishes rampant subjectivity and makes us more tolerant of other viewpoints. But it can also have a paralyzing effect, turning us into the famous centipede that did not know which foot to put first and thus encouraging the suppression of personality, which, whatever its excesses, is after all the source of insight and judgment.
This ideal of impersonal objectivity is only one of the motives for the current dismissal of evaluation in literary criticism.
This ideal of impersonal objectivity is only one of the motives for the current dismissal of evaluation in literary criticism. Evaluation used to be criticism’s central task. It has been dismissed by a new group of students of literature with completely different assumptions: by would-be scientists, mainly linguists, by semioticians and some structuralists, and by Northrop Frye, who erected a complex system of archetypes that obliterates the distinction between the most trivial detective story and a play by Shakespeare. Evaluation seems especially irrelevant to these system builders, who are looking for examples of structures to incorporate in their schemes, scientific or imaginative. Recently evaluation has also been attacked as “elitism,” as a defense of the tradition, and even as a method of oppression. But a little reflection should show that evaluation is a basic task of literary study. There is an insuperable gulf between great art and real trash.
The day-to-day task of criticism is the sifting of the enormous production of books, and even the ranking and grading of writers. That we teach Shakespeare, Dante, or Goethe rather than the newest best-seller or any of the romances, Westerns, crime, and detective novels, science fiction, and pornography on the racks of the nearest drugstore is an act of evaluation. We exercise choice the minute we take up even a classical text whose value is certified by generations of readers, in deciding what features we shall pay attention to, what we shall emphasize, appreciate, and admire, or ignore and deprecate. It is now unfashionable to speak of a love of literature, of enjoyment of and admiration for a poem, a play, or a novel. But such feelings surely must have been the original stimulus to anyone engaged in the study of literature. Otherwise he might as well have studied accounting or engineering. Love, admiration is, I agree, only the first step. Then we ask why we love and admire or detest. We reflect, analyze, and interpret; and out of understanding grows evaluation and judgment, which need not be articulated expressly. Evaluation leads to the definition of the canon, of the classics, of the tradition. In the realm of literature the question of quality is inescapable. If this is “elitism,” so be it.
Recently, arguments have been advanced in favor of subliterature, of Kitsch, colportage, Trivialliteratur, or however we may call it. Nobody can deny that a study of subliterature throws light on the history of taste, or that detective stories, science fiction, and all the other genres can be studied for structural properties and even graded by aesthetic criteria. One may very well distinguish between good, mediocre, and bad science fiction, detective novels, and even pornography. Even the most vociferous enemies of evaluation judge and rank. In his Anatomy of Criticism, whose “Polemical Introduction” denounces value judgment and hopes for a “steady advance toward undiscriminating catholicity,” Northrop Frye speaks of Aristophanes’s Birds as “his greatest play” and of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy as “the greatest Menippean satire in English before Swift.” The mere fact that Frye and others have elected to study Milton rather than Blackmore, Shakespeare rather than Glapthorne, is sufficient to show that there is no criticism or even literary history without choice and judgment. Recently, we also find an influential critic, Leslie Fiedler, advocating in What Was Literature? a reversal of the canon, praising pulp science fiction, hard-core pornography, and fiction “not accepted in the canon of o.k. art”: Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Rider Haggard, Margaret Mitchell. Fiedler is convinced that narrative skill and mythopoeic power are independent of formal excellence. Despising “upper-class” art and embracing “pop” art, Fiedler rejects his early admirations as so much hypocrisy. But even he has to make distinctions and evaluations. Though he tends always to side with the underdog, the proletarian, and the black man, he condemns Alex Haley’s Roots as “prefabricated commodity schlock.” But he has not told us why there should be, in what he considers upper-class art, no masterpieces to be pointed out and ranked, as he has ranked the examples of pop art he admires.
The need for evaluation is also obvious in literary history. In recent decades, literary history has often been dismissed as concerned only with the accumulation of external facts: bibliography, biography, influences, reputations, and so on. It has been ridiculed as a catchall of information on all subjects, as trivial antiquarianism. I count myself among the severest critics of literary histories (in reviews of Legouis-Cazamian’s, A.C. Baugh’s, and Grierson’s histories of English literature and R. Spiller’s Literary History of the United States). Many attempts have been made to remedy this situation. I must sketch the history of literary historiography to make the present situation comprehensible. There is a romantic tradition of nationalistic histories that sees literature as the expression of the national mind; there is a school of social explanation formulated memorably in Hippolyte Taine’s triad—race, milieu, moment; finally, there are the schemes of internal evolution devised by Ferdinand Brunetière on the analogy of biology and by the Russian formalists and Czech structuralists who saw literary evolution as a dialectical process of shifts in structure. Little to my mind has been added to these schemes that is really new. T. S. Eliot’s interpretation of the tradition has changed the evaluation of specific periods, styles, and groups of writers in the history of English poetry but has not changed the practice of literary history. The numerous writings of Harold Bloom have recently given a new twist to old problems. He is obsessed by the “burden of the past” (a phrase used in the title of W.J. Bate’s book on the English romantics) and by what he calls “the anxiety of influence,” the poet’s revolt against his predecessors. Bloom restates the old convention-revolt problem in psychoanalytical terms: the poet has an Oedipus complex; he wants to slay his poetic father. “True poetic history is the story of how poets have suffered other poets,” Bloom says in The Anxiety of Influence. He makes elaborate distinctions among the ways a poet handles his relation to older poets, inventing fancy terms—tessera, kenosis, daemonization, askesis, and apophrades—and describing the whole history of poetry as “an endless civil war, indeed a family war.” His criticism is “antithetical, revisionist,” carried by prophetic pathos in defense of “visionary” poetry, the line he construes—in conscious antithesis to T. S. Eliot’s—from Milton via Blake and Shelley to Whitman and Wallace Stevens. Unfortunately, this very individual scheme is marred by Bloom’s adherence to the view that all interpretation is misreading (“misprision”) and that “the true poem is the critic’s mind.” But Bloom cannot share the deconstructionists’ rejection of poetry’s relation to reality. “The theory of poetry is for him the theory of life,” to borrow his quotation from Wallace Stevens.
The need for evaluation is also obvious in literary history.
The abolition of aesthetics, the blurring of the distinction between poetry and critical prose, the rejection of the very ideal of correct interpretation in favor of misreading, the denial to all literature of any reference to reality are all symptoms of a profound malaise. If literature has nothing to say about our minds and the cosmos, about love and death, about humanity in other times and other countries, literature loses its meaning. It is possible to account for the flight from literary studies in our universities. I am of course aware of other reasons, mainly economic, but the emptying of human significance, the implied nihilism, must be contributing to the decline of the appeal of subjects like English and foreign languages and encouraging the preference for more palpable and palatable subject matter not only in the sciences and their utilitarian applications but also in the social sciences, which are still concerned with a nonlinguistic reality.
I would be misunderstood if I were seen simply as a laudator temporis acti, as recommending a return to the unreflective literary history that dominated the American universities when I first came to this country in 1927. After all, I wrote (with Austin Warren) Theory of Literature (1948), the first book in English with this title. In it I discuss the Russian formalists, Ingarden’s phenomenological analysis of the work of art, Czech structuralism, German Geistesgeschichte and stylistics, and other Continental developments. Long before, in 1937, I got involved in a controversy with F. R. Leavis whom I had criticized for his boastful empiricism, for being suspicious of any theory. In the last chapter of Theory (later deleted), I criticized the American academic situation quite harshly. I cannot be suspected of enmity toward theory or Continental developments.
One may hope that this new “absurdist” wave has already crashed on the shore.
There is a recent book by an Englishman, Geoffrey Strickland, Structuralism or Criticism? which puts the choice bluntly, voting for criticism in Leavis’s sense and rejecting structuralism mainly for its ambition to construe a closed system of literary signs. I agree with him on this point and can quote Hugo Friedrich, the eminent German Romanist, who wrote in 1967: “there cannot be a scheme or system, which would consider all phenomena of literature as limited by internal relations and combinations.” But I don’t see what can be said against the less universal structural analyses of Mukarovský, Genette, Todorov, and Lotman. There is a new poetics in the making, particularly of the novel, called “narratology,” which has profited from the structuralist approach. Strickland’s Structuralism or Criticism? poses a false dilemma. The enterprise of structuralism, first clearly formulated by the Prague Linguistic Circle in about 1935, seems to me fully justified. It is inconceivable, however, without the criticism of concrete works, without analysis, interpretation, and ultimately evaluation. I cannot agree with Jonathan Culler, an enthusiast for structuralism, who says in The Pursuit of Signs that “the interpretation of individual works is only tangentially related to the understanding of literature.” Only the collaboration, the exchange and necessary interaction of criticism and poetics, can guarantee a healthy development of literary studies. I reject the theories of some structuralists and post-structuralists who advocate “the abolition of man” (whatever that may mean), who are content with the presumed “prison house of language” and claim a complete systematization of all literature. Nor can I sympathize with the blurring of the difference between imaginative literature and criticism. I cannot advocate either a return to the anti-theoretical, almost instinctive kind of criticism practiced, say, by F. R Leavis or Yvor Winters. I sometimes feel guilty of having helped to propagate the theory of literature. Since my book, theory has triumphed in this country and has, possibly, triumphed with a vengeance. Still, I approve the basic impulse behind theory of literature, the need for clarification of principles and methods, for an articulated rationale of literary study. But some of the recent developments in their extreme skepticism and even nihilism would destroy this ideal, “deconstruct,” as they say, all literary study, interrupt tradition, dismantle an edifice built by the efforts of generations of scholars and students. Fortunately, one may hope that this new “absurdist” wave, as Hayden White has called it, has already crashed on the shore, even though its propounders still believe that they ride its crest.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 2 Number 4, on page 1
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