A Critique of Criticism, 12 May 2016

A look at the varying methods of literary criticism

In popular criticism, a critic may give a paragraph or so his attention as an initial reaction, to get the reader to see his perspective and set the tone, jot down something in the night to summarize it all, and post a review online sometime the next day. That’s the extent of the responsibility: check off some minor beats you expected to find along the story, correlate them with something you may have seen somewhere else, write derivative in your 6×9 yellow pad and underline it.

          In order to be objective, a critic will look at it from other points of view, get some contrary statements to cover the populist angle, and, noting how bad the dialogue was, how the action was tame and the ending uninspired. And the film/novel gets a score out of 5 or 4, or a thumbs up or two, and that’s it.

This was not always the approach to critiquing literature or art. Literary criticism, then, would be indistinguishable from what we today call literary analysis. It is the intentional probing of a manuscript, beckoning, Speak to me, ye words! And when they don’t, it’s not uncommon to feel left out of the joke. Many students have finished a copy of The Great Gatsby or The Fountainhead and thought, did I just not get it?

Lots of students feel that way about certain books they’ve been told are important for so long that, when they finally finish the story, there’s just something not there that you thought would be, something to justify the reputation of the novel. Literary criticism was born out of this idea, this idea to understand how stories were best told and structured, and how to explain popular curriculum books in a way that would best resonate with individual readers.

Literary criticism as literary analysis/exegesis made it to the popular conscience around the height of Athenian culture, where each year a tragedy contest would be held, accepting works from some of the biggest names in theatre history – Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes – who brought about a certain need in the public sphere to understand their entertainment, as a way to more wholly enjoy the performance, by identifying with the hero or heroine.

Tragedies submitted by Sophocles and Aeschylus would be judged against each other, with the critics weighing the pros and cons of such works as Antigone (the greatest of Sophocles’ plays) and The Libation Bearers, masterwork of the poet Aeschylus. This is the opposite of the original intention of critics; as they were more likely to be expounding upon the virtues of Epicurus or Aristotle, bringing their ideas to wider audience by condensing them and packaging them as beauty.

Though the popular appeal of condensed, Cliff Notes version of the Gospels, it worked in a much different way: instead of simplifying the idea, they simplified the presentation of ideas quite complex, especially for a young child, and through paintings on vases, the frescoes, and even the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, communicated the ideas behind the faith, ideas of mercy, forgiveness, and salvation.

This was a type of criticism, where a critic is used in the sense of someone who was there to appreciate art and communicate its most important ideas to a broader audience.

We have many in the theologian tradition to thank for modern textual and literary criticism; and the works of Martin Luther and Thomas Hobbes are a valuable contribution to the academic community. These include Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. While each of those books detailed by Nabokov don’t tell traditional stories of their own, or the stories they told themselves, they nevertheless draw our attention to some of the more sublime moments in literature and art, something a sometimes impatient mind may miss. These works are valuable for popularizing the notion that the studiousness of academia can be a worthwhile pursuit. To somehow prune new insights from the texts of Seneca and Chuang Tzu is a magic of its own.

The critics of the other type began as spectators in the Roman playhouses, noting the flaws of the heroes, often missing the point, while condemning Epicurus for his supposed debauchery in his philosophical exploration of human happiness.

This search for patterns, and for meaning, in thematic or philosophical language, the language used throughout the text serves to reinforce an important bit of subtext, or act as the harbinger of something to come. In music this is called a leit-motif, a pattern that repeats in different places to emphasis different, but similar structures and characters. As there must be experts, there must be experts to certify experts as experts, and so grew the community of theatre critics towards the end of the 19th century. In popular culture it leaned more toward the thumbs up/thumbs down or 3 out of 4 stars type reviews. These reviews are reminiscent of our schooldays of recapitulation, a tenuous rundown of the events, followed by comparing and contrasting positive and negative aspects of a film or novel. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this approach, and for those who use this method of criticism, I’m not here to critique.

The critique of studiousness often leaves out the critique built into the experience, and it is often more natural to let the cards fall as they might, as long as you’re right; or even let it unravel. The lesson is that you are criticizing something as it is against the standard of what it would be if somehow made perfect. To Epicurus, this was a recipe for sadness. Instead, the critique of romanticism puts the pieces of a story together by attempting to put the romantic hero back together.

The sentimental critic doesn’t necessarily look to judge the quality of a work, but more or less put it into a context that allows students and other academics to look at an old work in a new way, a way that allows us to connect the struggles of the characters with those of the modern world, like us, and use the lessons learned to improve our performance in our own world, towards prestige or financial success.

The question of quality commercial commentary is predicated upon the wisdom of a select few being sufficient to guide a great many to what makes the work under analysis transform into a malleable, transmutable metal in hands of a great metallurgist. The classical approach to literature and storytelling instruction has been through the demonstration of good literature by our teachers and professors throughout our life; we have been trained, through so many courses, to look for meaning, and to connect one idea to another, and hope to not be worse than wrong – which is to simply be uninteresting.

Many social and literary critics remain outside of the world of publishing, neglecting personal projects, such as fiction or non-fiction, as the academic discipline of analysis and comparative philology, which teaches you how recognize the structure of languages and their development and morphology, puts you in a perpetual comparative mood, even when looking at the organic, biological development of stories, how they’re put together, and how important themes are stressed again and again. The point behind literary criticism is not to tear a work to pieces, not for destruction, but for putting it back together.

When I was studying as a linguist, we often read books in their original language, then a prominent translation, and finally we’d go in for finals honors to try a more fitting translation of a given work, Tolstoy more often than not. When you work within the medium of teaching English composition, you begin to see a machinery at work, one that you can’t believe you’ve never see before.  As you begin to recognize the obvious cynicism behind the construction of what was supposed to be spontaneous, you can take solace in the fact that all stories, conscious or not, set out to reach you on an emotional level, to try to teach you something in the best of times, and to admonish and condemn in the worst. But once you see the skeleton and the scaffold, you know how a narrative is likely to unfold, looking at it as another in a series, as Sherlock Holmes said,

“If you know how the past 1,000 crimes were committed, it stands to reason you wouldn’t have a pretty good idea of what happened on the occasion of the 1,001st.”

The comparison may not seem readily obvious, but when you consider that all literature and art are, essentially, mysteries, all of them, even Jane Eyre. The mystery of art is not how the story ends or how a finished painting looks, but what the mystery there is in the shared imagination of mutual completion and appreciation. The mystery of literature is not how the unlikely hero manages to save the world in the end, but what such stories unintentionally reveal about their creators, like a real life Picture of Dorian Gray.

Though the mysteries of art are endless, the most striking is the almost instinctive human capacity to communicate through expression, through words and poetry, for sensual art and language.

It doesn’t manner what form of criticism you pick, it’s easy to point out the shortcomings of a truly disappointing story, but it is equally important to appreciate with the same fervor a relativity minor work by a relatively unknown author, an author who gets everything right. It’s hard to pinpoint anything in particular that makes Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther so charming. And being a part of Goethe’s early romanticism, it’s hard to look at it critically, to peel back the onions so to speak, and finds Goethe’s own great disappointment with romanticism.

While in the modern romantic age, it’s not too difficult to find yourself agonizing over the decisions made by writers, opting for the romantic. And though it is easy to spot the unremarkable in film and television, a lot of young students grow up thinking they failed somehow, when they didn’t fully understand an assigned book.

The horror of this realization is that, while many people can recognize the obvious problems in a bad film or TV series, far less know when a book is bad or good; a book requires a lot more dedication and belief in the author.

In the final analysis, art and literature remain interesting and sacred because of the natural sort of voodoo they offer up to us; the mystery of our own needs and feelings, and our need to have resolution and closure; to try to get to know these characters in fiction and grow up with them is to risk as much as having any friend, and they share so much of our imagination that they become another voice in us, participating in our inner lives. We can see glimmers of ourselves in the oldest stories of gods and monsters.

More importantly, presenting a reader with a character not much different from them, and make them relatable so it allows us to identify with the character, activating our mirror neurons as we see ourselves in them, our failures and struggles are also tied to them.

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