Friday, April 4, 2008

Is literary criticism possible?

"We humanists bring within the scope of the humanities all the great records - sometimes we call them the remains: poetry, drama, prescientific theory (Herodotus, Joinville, Bede) - of the experience of man; we are not concerned with him as vertebrate, biped, mathematician, or priest. Precisely, say the social scientists; that is just what is wrong with you; you don't see that man is not man, that he is merely a function; and your records (or remains) are so full of error that we are glad to relegate them to professors of English, poets, and other dilettanti, those 'former people' who live in the Past... No first-rate scientific mind is guilty of this vulgarity. Yet as academic statesmen, the humanists must also be practical politicians who know that they cannot stay in office unless they have an invigorating awareness of the power, and of the superior footwork, of the third-rate mind. As for literary criticism, we here encounter a stench and murk not unlike that of a battlefield three days after the fighting is over and the armies have departed. Yet in this war nobody has suggested that criticism is one of the social sciences, except a few Marxists, who tried... to make it a branch of sociology."

"The assumption that we are capable of just evaluation (a word that seems to have got into criticism by way of Adam Smith) is one of the subtler, if crude, abuses of democratic doctrine, as follows: all men ought to exercise independent judgment, and all men being equal, all are equally capable of it, even in literature and the arts. I have observed that when my own opinions seem most original and independent they turn out to be almost wholly conventional. An absolutely independent judgment (if such a thing were possible) would be an absolutely ignorant judgment."

"Literary criticism may become prescriptive and dogmatic when the critic achieves a coherence in the logical and rhetorical orders which exceeds the coherence of the imaginative work itself in those orders. We substitute with the critic a dialectical order for the elusive, and perhaps quite different, order of the imagination. We fall into the trap of the logicalization of parts discretely attended. This sleight of hand imposed upon the reader's good faith invites him to share the critic's own intellectual pride."

"A work of the imagination differs from a work of the logical intellect in some radical sense that seems to lie beyond our comprehension. But this much may be said: the imaginative work admits of neither progressive correction nor substitution or rearrangement of parts; it is never obsolete, it is always up-to-date. Dryden does not 'improve' Shakespeare; Shakespeare does not replace Dante, in the way that Einstein's physics seems to have 'corrected' Newton's. A good poem suggests the possibility of other poems equally good. But criticism is perpetually obsolescent and replaceable."

"Is literary criticism possible without a criterion of absolute truth? Would a criterion of absolute truth make literary criticism as we know it unnecessary? Can it have a relevant criterion of truth without acknowledging an emergent order of truth in its great subject matter, literature, itself?"

Allen Tate, 1950/1951

1 comment:

David Caddy said...

Sad news about the death of Andrew Crozier.