“L’homme s’affirme par l’infirmité.”
This essay is meant to introduce a book whose other chapters, written by five Berkeley graduate students, are critical studies of Shakespeare, Dickens, Pater, Melville, and Joyce.1 Unlike most literary criticism, these essays refer overtly to hypotheses and rules of procedure that were neither derived from literature nor primarily meant to apply to literature. Such criticism can go wrong in several ways: by using weak hypotheses, by using strong and pertinent ones in too mechanical a fashion, or by warping literary evidence to meet presuppositions. The recourse to “extraliterary” theory is not in itself, however, a methodological error. The simple fact that literature is made and enjoyed by human minds guarantees its accessibility to study according to broad principles of psychic and social functioning.
This point would seem too obvious to dwell on, but it is widely resisted among the very group to whom it should be most axiomatic, professional students of literature. Most literary scholars observe an informal taboo on methods that would plainly reveal literary determinants. Such methods are considered intrinsically anti-humanistic, and criticism systematically employing them is regarded as ipso facto shortsighted. Academic critics often circumvent the taboo by disguising or compromising their explanatory inclination, thus earning a hearing at the expense of some consistency and clarity. But the prohibition itself deserves scrutiny, not only because it is intellectually indefensible but because its operation has grave consequences for the teaching of literature.
The majority view of deterministic schemes was aptly conveyed by Northrop Frye, one of the most influential of living critics, as he gave assurance that his own theory of literature would not borrow its conceptual framework from sources outside literature itself. Any extrinsic system, he said,
gives us, in criticism, the fallacy of what in history is called determinism, where a scholar with a special interest in geography or economics expresses that interest by the rhetorical device of putting his favorite study into a causal relationship with whatever interests him less. Such a method gives one the illusion of explaining one’s subject while studying it, thus wasting no time. It would be easy to compile a long list of such determinisms in criticism, all of them, whether Marxist, Thomist, liberal-humanist, neo-Classical, Freudian, Jungian, or existentialist, substituting a critical attitude for criticism, all proposing, not to find a conceptual framework for criticism within literature, but to attach criticism to one of a miscellany of frameworks outside it. The axioms and postulates of criticism, however, have to grow out of the art it deals with. The first thing the literary critic has to do is to read literature, to make an inductive survey of his own field and let his critical principles shape themselves solely out of his knowledge of that field. 2
Insofar as this statement pleads against replacing sensitive criticism with a crude ransacking of literature to illustrate hypotheses about other matters, it is beyond dispute. More is meant, however. Frye…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.