Monday, September 2, 2013

Criticism was a serious business

“To write and have something published is less and less something special”, complained Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve in 1839. “At least once in his life, everyone will have his page, his discourse, his publisher’s brochure, his toast, everyone will be an author once . . . . Why not me too?" everyone asks.

Sainte-Beuve’s answer to the question he posed – “Why not me too?” – was that the humble lecteur lacked what his English disciple Matthew Arnold called a “conscience in literary matters” – the ability to discern and appreciate forms of literary excellence remote from his or her own experience and knowledge. This literary conscience could only be acquired by the kind of rigorous study that very few had the time or the energy to undertake; and those few constituted, in their own eyes at least, a court of appeal in literary matters, whose judgements the rest of the world ought to accept as binding.

Criticism was a serious business for for Sainte-Beuve, but not a solemn one. The critic’s style had itself to exhibit the virtues of intelligence, flexibility, nuance and wit prized in the works under review. It was these qualities, so signally lacking in his complacent and narrow-minded contemporaries, that made Sainte-Beuve such an appealing figure to Matthew Arnold, and prompted Arnold to undertake his spectacularly successful reform of the dominant tone and temper of English criticism. Arnold’s promotion of the ideal of critical “disinterestedness” was motivated, in part at least, by a desire to dispel the poisonously partisan atmosphere generated by the leading journals of his day...

-- Joseph Phelan, in the August 30, 2013, TLS

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