Literary Criticism without Literature

My title has two meanings. The first is that, since the 1980s at least, what calls itself literary criticism has consisted largely of abstract theory, most often concerned primarily with itself. An enterprise both gnostic and narcissistic, such criticism reduces ultimately to ideological formulas which, once pried free from the encrustation of verbiage, reveal themselves as the hoariest of political clichés, never out of daily use since 1848, which function mainly as group-identity noises. All contemporary critics are smarter than Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Dostoyevsky, but no one is smarter than le grand Jacques, Noam Chomsky, or Naomi Wolf. Although exiled to the periphery, actual criticism has continued to exist, but it is the tendentious type of discourse that has come to dominate the English and other literature departments over the last thirty years. The second meaning, the one that interests me in what follows, relates closely to the first.

Race Class Gender Lit

English departments generally offer courses, either for undergraduate English majors or for students in the graduate master’s-degree programs, which ostensibly would familiarize the enrollment with basic terms and notions of literary criticism and with the varieties of criticism. This course, a requirement for English majors, typically entails a smörgåsbord of “studies,” “critical this-or-that theory,” and the supernumerary “isms.” Increasingly in our post-literate society, however, few students at the undergraduate level, and surprisingly few even at the master’s-degree level, bring with them to their academic work much in the way of exposure, self-administered or otherwise, to literature.

In simple, today’s students have read but few books. What they have read corresponds either to commercial narrative or to the topical, published-yesterday fiction that the hucksters of the scholastic book market sell to the middle schools and high schools, as “edgy,” “with it,” or “out-of-the-headlines” portrayals of teenage anxiety. How then might the instructor teach literary judgment to students who are practically bereft of literature hence also bereft of serious reading experience; who lack rich vocabularies, suffer from stunted aesthetic sensibility, and think that the word novel is merely a synonym for the word book? Such an assignment is obviously a challenging, if not an altogether impossible, one.

Since I occasionally teach my department’s Introduction to Literary Criticism, I have had to think the problem through. When I recently received the assignment to teach the course again, I moved “proactively,” as my “progressive” colleagues like to say, on the assumption that the situation would correspond to what I have sketched above.

A survey on the first day of class confirmed the expectation. Between them, the sixteen students could produce the titles of only eight novels that they had read (but that not all of them had read), and of these the three most-mentioned (five students had read all three) were Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games (2008), its sequel Catching Fire (2009), and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (2005). Four students listed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby (1925); one listed Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890). Six out of the ten coeds, but none of the men, had read Jay Asher’s adolescent female suicide-story Thirteen Reasons Why (2007). A few students had read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet but none had read Hamlet or The Tempest. No student could name a poem by William Wordsworth, John Keats, or Robert Frost.

It is worth observing how thoroughly contemporary the collated reading-experiences are. Except for The Great Gatsby and Romeo and Juliet, the list inscribes itself largely within the straitened confines of the just-begun century and it surveys only the commercial genres. In addition, the novels by Fitzgerald, Collins, and Meyer tie in with the movies and in the case of Fitzgerald and Collins with quite recent movies from spring and summer 2013 aimed at teenagers.

The activity of literary criticism only makes sense on a presumption of knowledge about literature. Literary criticism emerges from the study of poetry, going back to Aristotle’s Poetics. Lack of familiarity with the poetic canon, as attested in the survey, presents a real stumbling block to those who, supposing their earnestness, want to learn a few basic criteria for assessing novels, poems, and plays. In its turn, a deficiency in the faculty of judgment, which must first be inculcated, is a social handicap, and a mass of such intellectually unformed persons is a social crisis. In its small way, the literary criticism course has functioned to sustain the civilized order, and the disintegration of that order is reflected in the disintegration of literary criticism as a coherent idea. Much therefore is at stake in the meaningful articulation of such a course.


To remediate students as much as possible, I ordered for the semester the Dover anthology of English Romantic Poetry and Owen Barfield’s study of History in English Words (1928), part of which concerns the influence of poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge on Modern English. The anthology serves a self-evident purpose: To give students on a day-by-day, in-class basis, a reasonable encounter with the great early-nineteenth-century poets, while offering at the same time the opportunity of practice in the discipline of reading poems aloud. Barfield’s fascinating book serves the purpose of giving students an awareness of their language, about which historically and culturally they have investigated nothing.

History in English Words builds vocabulary. Barfield approaches his subject etymologically. He discusses in full, among many other things, the Greek and Latin influences on English, and the Germanic and Norman strata of the tongue. History has an excellent index. When students encounter word-recognition trouble or “vocabulary insensibility” in tackling, say, a Wordsworth sonnet, they can consult, via the index, Barfield’s discussion of the word in question. The dialogue of Barfield and the poets gradually establishes the connection between language-competency and the event of understanding a text. What happens when the class makes its way from the study of poetics to the study of narrative?

Obviously this move entails addressing and if possible remediating, the students’ impoverished reading-experience. To do so I availed myself of the “smart classroom,” about which I have recently commented at the Pope Center for Higher Education website. I screened Benjamin Bagby performing Beowulf in concert, in Anglo-Saxon with subtitles, to the accompaniment of his own, reconstructed Saxon harp. I screened Julie Taymor’s Tokyo production (1992) of Igor Stravinsky’s opera Oedipus Rex, after Sophocles. In addition, I brought in excerpts from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. We examined Ovid’s myths, one-a-day, as we had our selection of Romantic poems, for two weeks. Students soon shared knowledge of a dozen canonical stories about which they could begin to think comparatively.


René Girard, to whose I See Satan Fall like Lightning (2001) the semester devoted its final four weeks, concerns himself with the anthropological and moral aspects of literature and the relation of Greek Myth and the Gospel not only to one another but to subsequent literature. Girard takes interest in victims, but in a manner totally different from postmodern victim-studies; he writes about covetousness and jealousy as the drivers of human misery. For a final assignment, I asked students to select a story from a list and submit it to examination under Girard’s ideas of anthropology and morality.

Girard’s theory of mimesis reveals features of The Great Gatsby that students who previously read it missed the first time around. Nick Carraway’s fixation on the distant light in the novel’s opening scene signifies his terrible lack of knowledge about what to want. When Carraway meets Gatsby, one student writes, “He wants to emulate Gatsby.” But to emulate a model is to want what the model wants. Emulation becomes rivalry, and rivalry makes the objects of desire seem all the more desirable. The student explains the misery of the Gatsby coterie by a well-chosen quotation from I See Satan Fall: “Imitation becomes intensified at the heart of hostility, but the rivals do all they can to conceal from each other and from themselves the cause of this intensification.” With assistance from Girard, the student has understood Fitzgerald’s analysis of moral causality.

Body NSatchers

A second student chose to write about Jack Finney’s Body Snatchers (1955) and its first screen adaptation The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The student sees Girard’s discussion of mobs and majorities as relevant to the “Body-Snatcher” narrative. He, who resists conformity with the crowd, becomes the crowd’s intolerable enemy. Finney’s protagonist Miles Bennell resembles the “scapegoat” of a society in crisis: “The pod people must destroy him in order to achieve total catharsis… In order to have complete dominance… the one who threatens their perfect society… must be put to death.”

A third student took on Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. The plot, as the student writes, consists of “bouts of mimetic desire,” which Gray experiences as he seeks to fill the emptiness he senses in his existence. The student quotes Wilde: “When [Gray] saw [his own portrait] he drew back, and his cheeks flushed… A look of joy came into his eyes, as if he had recognized himself for the first time.” Later, writing of the Gray-Vane romance, the student remarks how “Dorian’s actual desire was not for Sybil but for Sybil’s performance.” As in Gatsby, vain people chase shadows.

I See Satan Fall helps a fourth student to discover genuinely new things to say about the Monty Python film The Life of Brian (1979). My sense when the student proposed his topic was that Brian simply mocked the Gospel story. Nevertheless, the Gospel story figures prominently in Girard’s anthropology, as do the stories of the Old Testament. I See Satan Fall begins indeed with a profound discussion of the Tenth Commandment. According to Girard, as the student writes, a scapegoat “serves the purpose of giving the community an organized way of channeling their [sic] frustrations and anger.” Scapegoat is the role into which the Graham Chapman character falls in the film. The student discovers many related details.

I return to a point that I have made elsewhere in writing about student encounters with Richard Wagner and H. G. Wells. Contemporary college students are not stupid, but they are often far more ignorant than they need to be, having been ill-served both by the jejuneness of North American K-12 and by the ideological tendentiousness, verbal abstruseness, and hackneyed content, of the postmodernity under which the majority of their college preceptors have also been educated. Given patient, orderly instruction, and, more importantly, the opportunity to confront non-trivial ideas and rich objects of aesthetic contemplation, they are capable of initiating independent thought and of enriching their notions of art, literature, and the world.

I find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that the insipidity of the reigning curricula everywhere in education – whether high or low – has the sole and intentional purpose of producing mental blandness under the regime of conformity to a boring and narrow opinion. But I am undoubtedly a crank – some who thinks that undergraduates might actually rise to the occasions that we give them and that they ought to do so for compelling moral, as well as intellectual, reasons.

9 thoughts on “Literary Criticism without Literature

  1. Your students’ words are far more encouraging than those you shared in your Post-Literacy posts. Bless you for your patience and courage in helping them grow and mature.

  2. I have only one colleague, whose name I will reserve, on campus who sees things the way I do. He and I are the only dissenters that a few students, the ones who come through our classrooms, will encounter in four years of college. My activity is a kind of wager, that, somewhere down the line, in some situation, something that I have said or that I have asked students to read will suddenly make sense and clarify a situation that is inexplicable under liberal paradigm that spawns it. A combination of immense patience and occasional brutal frankness, which must be brought into a hard-to-achieve balance, is the necessary way of addressing young people as impoverished by their previous education, as the ones whom I daily and yearly confront. Thank you for your generous comment. T.

  3. It is not surprising that few want to read, or even have the chance. When I was a student we had television (limited to three broadcast channels along with, possibly, a fourth–the always hard to tune-in UHF band). I recall AM and FM radio, and component stereo (media consisting of records or compact cassettes–the latter portable to a car, if you had one). There was no Internet, no cable, no Netflix, no “smart” phones with unlimited data plans, no portable game consoles, no Facebook, no iPods/Pads, no downloading, no streaming media, no “selfies’ to share, etc. In short, not much to interfere with reading.

    Finally, although our parents did not think so, pop acts had not yet sunk into complete morbid degeneracy. However, by the end of the sixties, it was all over in that department.

    I do not believe it is only education that is impoverished. Rather, it is the entire social-cultural environment. Actually, if it were only a case of impoverishment there might be hope, as fortunes may change. However, our total environment is actively degenerate, and actively anti-high culture and anti-tradition. This active race to below the bottom creates an almost insurmountable vortex.

    I would not want to be a youngster growing up today. How can they not be lost? Sure, there are probably a few households where a classical education is important. But will Chinese parents “forcing” their kids to learn classical piano and violin be able to save the West? Indeed, for most “average” kids, having a teacher able to impart a sense of civility, along with an introduction to high culture, may be the only hope. For that you deserve a raise.

    • “I do not believe it is only education that is impoverished. Rather, it is the entire social-cultural environment.” Yes, everything is going to Hell at the same time, down the same path. The degenerescence is not only ideologically, but also technologically driven.

  4. Parents who can do so should consider home schooling their children. It seemed to me that he various curricula offered by independent publishers provide a good exposure to literature. Not all students take to home study well, but it worked well for us. Readers of this site who would like a basic traditional read on literary criticism would find it in “The Politically Incorrect Guide To English Literature” by Elizabeth Cantor.

    • I recently learned about this site: The Classical Christian Education Support Loop’s 1000 Good Books List. Divided by reading levels, it is a non-exhaustive compilation of children’s literature, selected on the following bases:

      The criteria we used to judge inclusion are: Does the book have literary value? Does the book re-emphasize a Biblical worldview or the Judeo-Christian heritage in some way? Does the book teach, through whatever means, what is moral or just or true? Does the book encourage to love and good works? Does the book exemplify warmth, tenderness, courage, humor, and other values and characteristics that we desire our children to be exposed to? Does the book nourish the intellect and fire the imagination? Does the book cross age barriers to be enjoyed by all?

      At the high school level, a tiny sampling of authors on the list—Austin, Balzac, Chesterton, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Huxley, Irving, Melville, Orwell, Tolstoy—shows that the selections are far more edifying, and with far greater literary merit, than the pop schlock represented by such dreck as The Hunger Games or the Twilight series.

  5. Pingback: Readings for 27 March 2014 | Ex Libris Humanitas


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