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How to Rescue Literature

Literature has two advantages over wine. A good book ages forever; and you can read it as often as you wish without diminishing its substance. The devoted reader is like a wine lover whose dream has come true. His stock will never spoil or be consumed. He can sample, enjoy, and share his cellar without fear of depleting his reserve; it will grow as he grows. He need never go thirsty.

For many people literary criticism, to continue the analogy with wine, continues to mean the unconfined medium of personal responses, informal and formal talk, reviews, and scholarship in which works of art circulate and finally locate themselves. For others, however, criticism has taken bold steps in the past thirty years. It now encompasses activities that have little relation to tasting or enjoying anything. Symbolic systems and quantified scientific analysis have become fairly common approaches to literary works. Furthermore, literary criticism has virtually abandoned a set of practices that was once considered essential to the full appreciation of literature. In order to examine this state of affairs, I shall have to touch first on a few preliminary matters.


Baudelaire and Blackmur produced two wonderfully tonic statements about criticism. “Criticism should be partial, passionate, and political, that is to say written from an exclusive point of view, but the point of view that opens the most horizons” (Salon de 1846). Baudelaire’s own criticism usually meets his standards; his writings on art and literature themselves belong to literature. Blackmur begins “A Critic’s Job of Work” with a fine slyness. “Criticism, I take it, is the formal discourse of an amateur.”1 An amateur is both a nonprofessional and a person who loves something very much. I could not improve on Blackmur’s emphasis.

It is worth insisting, moreover, on how large and varied the domain of criticism has become today. The journalistic reviewer addresses himself to the general public, usually on the subject of recent works. A recognized writer like Edmund Wilson uses the wide-ranging form of the literary essay. Teachers choose works to present to their classes for discussion, interpretation, and evaluation. Scholars, whether they lean toward biography, history, or interpretation, contribute to the stock of tools and materials with which all critics must work. Literary theorists and philosophers try to give it all a shape and a name and often attach literature to adjacent fields, as if to provide a safe dock in the perilous seas of critical dispute. Because it is by far the most widely practiced, the most influential, and the least acknowledged as a branch of criticism, I shall write principally about teaching, and refer to other branches as they support or disrupt it.

Literature in the Professor’s Den

In a university I recently visited, I regularly passed two classes which I found myself observing with fascination through the open doors. In the first, five or six students sat around a table listening to the elderly professor read to them in Spanish from a beautifully bound book propped in front of him. What I heard of his voice was expressive and very clear. His histrionic gestures and shifts in emphasis played constantly between the comic and the passionate. At frequent intervals a student would read from his own text—haltingly, yet catching some of the professor’s feeling and even a few of his gestures. My host informed me that some faculty members considered Professor M’s teaching the scandal of the Spanish department; in his Cervantes seminar he simply read Don Quixote aloud, with running commentary on the language, historical background, and cross-references in the novel, and with little systematic interpretation. Yet a few graduate students always stated that they had learned a great deal from Professor M and expressed great loyalty to him. The question was moot; he would retire next year.

Further down the corridor an intense young man in a corduroy jacket and no tie had always, by the time I passed, covered the blackboard with carefully lettered diagrams, assorted symbols, and equations. He stood gesticulating with the chalk at the large class, all of whom were taking notes with a concentrated expression. According to my host, Assistant Professor N had a strong following among the graduate students in English and had attracted some good undergraduates. He had published two stunning articles combining communications theory and speech-act theory in an analysis of comic strips. He was a candidate for early promotion and had received offers from two universities to participate in special interdisciplinary programs.

Both these classroom critics faced the same problem: how does one fill the forty hours of class or lecture time we call a “course”? In the past the accepted activities in the teaching of literature seemed limited in number and free of serious challenge. The life and times of the author, a close reading “on many levels,” and an accompanying history of ideas combined personal response with the Great Tradition and usually led to some form of appreciation and evaluation. “Appreciation” grew out of an attempt to relate a work as interpreted to other literary works and to the dynamics and tensions of our lived experience.

I. A. Richards fluttered the pedagogical chicken coops a bit back in the Twenties. It took the wider ideological challenges of the Sixties to leave a lasting mark on classroom behavior. Professor M has reverted almost to the Middle Ages, when students often spent their time copying a precious manuscript read aloud by the teacher. Professor N would probaby feel a certain malaise about a Great Tradition and about attempting any form of appreciation, a word now consigned to music departments. His methods of interpretation and analysis give him an apparent command or mastery of literary works that has turned the activities of English and foreign literature departments on their heads.

An early pastiche version of what is happening today can be found in Oscar Wilde’s entertaining dialogue, “The Critic as Artist.” Gilbert, by far the more eloquent speaker, acclaims the critic’s role.

Criticism, being the purest form of personal impression, is in a way more creative than creation, as it has least reference to any standard external to itself….2

Gilbert’s aggressive posing has gradually been systematized and institutionalized to the point where literature may be looked upon in the most respected circles as a pretext for criticism, as a convenient armature for theory. I sense that in some graduate literature programs around the country today more extensive and more careful reading is expected of students in literary theory and methodology than in works of literature—let alone in literary history. It is not just that literature has been submerged in doctrinal thinking. A literal usurpation has begun which would depose literature and grant sovereign authority to one or more of several competing disciplines. It is impossible to describe these pretenders in any detail, but a partial roll call may help.

Various forms of structuralism appropriate literature to a set of myths that rule us through a strong binary logic. “We do not claim,” writes Lévi-Strauss, “to show how men think in myths, but how myths think themselves in men, and without their knowledge…. Myths think themselves among themselves.”3 The slippery doctrine of écriture (writing? scripture?) has delivered literature into the hands of linguistics and set out to eliminate the author in favor of language itself. Barthes stated it categorically in the Sixties: “Language is not the predicate of a subject…it is the subject.”^4 It is the phenomenon, the possibility, of having significance, of being a sign, that lies at the heart of semiology (or semiotics), a discipline founded on the supremacy of a universal theory of signs.

Communication and information theory has staked a major claim to the territory of literature since Roman Jakobson’s “Linguistics and Poetics” speech in 1958.5 So far as I can discern in the writings of J. L. Austin and J. R. Searle (both philosophers) and their followers, speech-act theory originally took no interest in literature except marginally as “etiolated” or stagnant speech. This mode of analysis recently grafted onto criticism has the effect of converting literary studies into a form of sociolinguistic philosophy. Reader-response theory tends to look around and beyond the text to the reactions it elicits. Promising as a basically experimental approach, it often becomes enmeshed in interview statistics, transactional psychology, and curious notions about communities of readers. These recent theories have defined and refined their methods while both Marxist and Freudian criticism remain very active.

All these approaches can widen our horizons in ways Baudelaire would have approved, and challenge us to reexamine the relations between criticism and its host, literature. What we should beware of is the temptation to subordinate literature to the claims of any extra-literary discipline to superior authority or knowledge. (In a moment I shall discuss the claims of linguistics.) Literature is not autonomous and unrelated to our daily lives; on the contrary, we all to some degree live by and through it. But it does not belong to any domain outside the domain of art, and we are shirking our responsibilities if we look the other way while self-styled “literary” critics deliver literature into the hands of one or another branch of the social sciences.

We would do well to remember something of the past. It has taken approximately two hundred years to free literature from the authority of established religion, royal patronage, and bourgeois values. The heroes of that struggle—Swift and Diderot and Goethe, Flaubert and Dostoevsky, Joyce and Proust—were above all independent writers who submitted their work to no authority beyond the conflicting traditions of literature itself and the demands of their own sensibilities. Do we now, out of loss of confidence in literature or out of doubts about how to spend class time in a difficult season, want to surrender literature—or criticism—to a new set of masters?

A disturbing aspect of these raids on literature and criticism by outlying disciplines is their common aspiration to the objectivity and certainty of science at the very moment when the tendentious and teleological nature of much scientific activity is coming to light.6 Not the existence of this ambition (already pronounced in Taine’s theory, not in his practice) but its spread should trouble us. In the introduction to Cours de linguistique générale Saussure, a consistently exciting and clearheaded thinker on language, called for the creation of “a science which will study the life of signs in the midst of social life” and named it semiology. In a beautifully self-fulfilling prophecy, comparable to the gaps in Mendeleev’s periodic table anticipating the discovery of new elements, Saussure wrote that “its place is determined in advance.”7 A number of influential literary critics, including Northrop Frye and Roland Barthes, have followed his lead. Frye suggests that

It may also be a scientific element in criticism which distinguishes it from literary parasitism on the one hand, and the superimposed critical attitude on the other…. Everyone who has seriously studied literature knows that the mental process involved is as coherent and progressive as the study of science…. If criticism is a science it is clearly a social science.8

  1. 1

    R. P. Blackmur, Language as Gesture (Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1952), p. 372.

  2. 2

    Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist,” 1890; reprinted in The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Other Essays, edited by Philip Rieff (Harper & Row, 1970), pp. 121, 132.

  3. 3

    Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le Cru et le cuit (Paris: Plon, 1964), p. 20.

  4. 5

    Roman Jakobson, “Concluding Statement: Linguistics and Poetics,” in Style in Language, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok (MIT Press, 1960), pp. 350-377.

  5. 6

    The basic references on the subject are Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Basic Books, 1959) and Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (Basic Books, 1962); F.A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science (Free Press, 1952); and most recently Lewis S. Feuer, “Teleological Principles in Science,” Inquiry, 21 (1978), pp. 377-407.

  6. 7

    F. de Saussure, Cours de linguistique générale, edited by Tullio de Mauro (Paris: Payot, 1976), p. 33.

  7. 8

    Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1957; reprinted Atheneum, 1966), pp. 7, 10-11, 16.

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