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Thursday, December 6, 2018


In response to my brief response to MS, anonymous writes “Is it possible to disagree with a literary critic? It seems that they refuse to accept that a text may be uninteresting, despite the often considerable effort devoted to its interpretation. Do they make any falsifiable statements at all?”  Absent an accompanying emoji, it is difficult to determine in what tone of voice this question is asked, but since it raises some interesting issues, I will respond as though it was a genuine request for an answer.

Let me begin by distancing myself from the high priests of Lit Crit who, in a desperate grasp for dominance, have advanced the absurd view that a text is indeterminate and hence their interpretation of it is more important than the text itself.  I sympathize with their dilemma, which is that they spend their entire careers discussing the productions of creative types and yet themselves never create anything original at all.  For a senior tenured member of an elite private university, this must be a terrible blow to the ego.  But though I feel for them, I cannot take their claims seriously.

Do literary critics make any falsifiable statements at all, asks anonymous.  Well, the simple answer is that of course they may very possibly do so.  A literary critic who calls John Steinberg the finest English satirist of the earlier eighteenth century can reasonably be said to have mistaken Steinberg for Swift, perhaps because of the similarity of their first names.  And another who describes War and Peace as a trenchant Spanish novella has also clearly gone astray.

But that is not what anonymous means.  He [?] means, are their literary analyses factual assertions capable of falsification?  Are they aesthetic judgments answerable to some defensible norms of interpretation?  Or with them, as the Cole Porter song says, is it that Anything Goes?

To answer this question, we need to be a bit clearer about the function of literary [or musical] criticism, or indeed of any sort of aesthetic criticism.  Opinions differ, needless to say, but my own view is as follows.

The primary activity in the field of art is the creative effort of the artist.  That effort produces a poem, a tragedy, a novel, a painting, a sculpture, a carving, a dance, a symphony, a song, or some other object or action or installation that is intended as an act or product of creativity.  The work of art may be offered to an audience to be experienced, appreciated, enjoyed, reviled, exalted, condemned, or whatever. 

There is no limit to what can count as art, and there is no authority who gets to say what is and what is not real art.  Some efforts to create art will be welcomed and enjoyed, celebrated and revered by others.  Some efforts will, as David Hume said of his immortal Treatise, “fall stillborn from the presses.”  Some will never be recognized as art by anyone else, and some may even not be intended to be shared with anyone other than the creator.

The function of the literary critic, insofar as literary critics have any function at all, is to say things about a work of literary art that readers or listeners may find illuminating, insightful [or inciteful], helpful, amusing, profound, scholarly, shrewd.  At its best, literary criticism may improve the experience of reading a text.  At its worst, literary criticism can all but ruin a reader’s enjoyment of a text.

Think of literary critics as akin to those audio guides that some museums offer to their visitors, for a price.  If you want someone’s opinion of what you are looking at, rent one.  But there is nothing stopping you from simply walking through the galleries on your own.

My interpretation of The Color Purple was offered in that spirit.  If you find it suggestive, I am gratified, but for heaven’s sake, do not view it as a substitute for reading the novel!


Dean said...

When you take to task "the high priests of Lit Crit who, in a desperate grasp for dominance, have advanced the absurd view that a text is indeterminate and hence their interpretation of it is more important than the text itself," where do you find the absurdity? Is it in the view that a text is indeterminate, or that a critical interpretation is superior to the subject text? The former seems innocuous, but not absurd. Literary critics can be "illuminating, insightful, helpful, amusing," etc., in large part because the texts they address can't once and for all be explained or interpreted. To me, that characteristic is a species of indeterminacy. The latter view, that critics hold their own secondary work superior to the primary works they address, is probably incorrect. I imagine you are thinking of, inter alia, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, or Harold Bloom, all notorious in their own ways. As critics, they have addressed the relationship of criticism to, say, poetry or fiction. In their own ways, they declare the importance of criticism as being itself a kind of creative work. They are not generally interested in ordinary book reviews as instances of literary criticism. These are works "akin to those audio guides" in museums. Rather, they are interested in work that identifies patterns, correlations, themes, etc., that occur in and across texts by one or more authors. Sometimes those findings are falsifiable. Take the work of Josephine Miles, who counted distributions of words in the work of certain poets, well before our age of big data, ngrams, and "distant reading." Sometimes the findings (or assertions) are not falsifiable. That they are mere matters of opinion is either beside the point or goes without saying. When Bloom exposes what matters to him about, say, a work by Stevens, we can take away not only a sense as to how Stevens' poetry affects others, but an appreciation of the experience of reading Bloom's own text.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this--it wasn't a mean-spirited question. Maybe I could have added a smiley.
Incidentally I greatly benefited from your remarks on irony and your emphasis on appearance versus reality.

The fact is that I appreciate literary criticism as much as I am frustrated by some it. My question wasn't prompted by your own take on The Color Purple as it was by a readable open source introduction to the humanities for undergraduates, titled Literature, the Humanities, and Humanity. The book is very reasonable--I cannot find fault with a single one of the authors suggestions for reading. But this unassailable rationality is the source of my trouble: the intellectual armor is so iron clad as to appear unfalsifiable. [One couldn't say this as an impertinent undergraduate--one has to wait some number of years before volunteering my own obdurate ignorance, despite the best intentions of my professors.]

s. wallerstein said...

I myself prefer the museum guided tour approach to criticism of a literary or even a philosophical text.

If I buy a book on Nietzsche, it's because Nietzsche interests me and I want the guided tour of his texts.

For example, Giles Deleuze's book, Nietzsche and the Philosophy, often seems to be more about Giles Deleuze than about Nietzsche. When I tried to read it, I didn't learn much about Nietzsche about all. His book on Spinoza focuses even less on Spinoza.

On the other hand, Brian Leiter's book, Nietzsche On Morality, helps to guide the reader through Nietzsche's views on morality and one ends up with a plausible vision (there are other plausible visions of Nietzsche's view on morality, I'm sure) of what Nietzsche thought about the subject.

Similarly, if I buy a book about, say, Proust, by a literary critic, it's because I want the guided tour of Proust's work.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Dean, I am not sure we disagree. If I find a critic's writings interesting, suggestive, even independently important, all well and good. I will read them and learn from them and enjoy them. I guess I have a rather more baleful view than you of high criticism.

s. wallerstein said...

Also life is short.

As I get older, my eyes tire much more easily, I have glaucoma, and I can no longer read all night as I once could. I wonder whether I'll get around to rereading all of Shakespeare (as I would like to) or to taking on Proust for the first time (besides one volume of his read in the university many years ago), and I just don't have time for critics, unless they're of the museum guided tour variety. It's a question of priorities.

Dean said...

I suspect the distaste for criticism, which is today often viewed as parasitic upon real literature (pace Hillis Miller), is captured partly in a contemporaneous review of Eagleton's 1984 book, The Function of Criticism. The review notes, "The literary critic has...dwindled in stature from an Addison to a nineteenth-century 'man of letters' and finally to a twentieth century academic." From an angle, it's amusing that we even have books about "the function of criticism" or its history, parasites upon parasites!

I entirely sympathize with the time management problem. I, too, would love to read or reread Shakespeare, Keats, Woolf, and so forth. But I also want to read Coleridge on Shakespeare.

LFC said...

S. Greenblatt's chapter on Shakespeare's Sonnets in Will in the World is a good example, in my view, of a critic helping the reader see what a work is all about and how the language, the psychology, the context of its composition, and the themes (which, in this case, merit the clichéd adjective "timeless") are intertwined. I don't read much lit crit so my store of examples is limited, but that particular discussion of the Sonnets I really liked.

Anonymous said...

Here is a relevant essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education: Lies About the Humanities — and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them

Anonymous said...

A defense, without the self-aggrandizement and hyperbole.