First-Day Lecture to the Lit Crit Students

Lecture Hall

Ideal, Free-Range College Students

Let us begin with two questions – what is literary criticism and who or what is a literary critic?  The true answers to these questions might surprise someone who attends college and who associates literature almost solely with what is called academic or scholarly interest.  Very possibly, only a few academicians or scholars are today genuinely deserving of the title literary critic.  The humanities departments, having become all at once thoroughly and fanatically political and thoroughly and fanatically bureaucratic, what passes in them for literary criticism is largely the imposition of predetermined and stereotyped ideological matrices on novels, plays, poems, and stories such that, in the main, the novels, plays, poems, and stories disappear and all that remains is the ideological matrix.  Practices still calling themselves literary and critical will work themselves out as though they were self-actuating algorithms (“apps” in contemporary parlance), in the functioning of which, no human intervention is necessary.  The sole interests are hierarchy, which everyone knows to be “bad” and which everyone therefore loves to denounce, and the somatic attribute, conceived in the narrowest way, and assumed to distribute itself according to a moral hierarchy. * Such a practice can only issue in a debilitating self-contradiction, which is exactly what happens.  Missing in the “deconstructive,” “postmodern,” “feminist,” “classist,” and related English-Department discourses concerning novels, plays, poems, and stories is any scintilla of Eros – that is to say of passion, desire, or love – and any sense that the critic might be far less significant than the object of his interest.  We have, of course, not yet answered the two questions, but clearing away certain misconceptions is a necessary prequel to furnishing those answers.

Literary criticism – to tackle the first question – is best grasped as a subject’s passion, desire, or love for novels, plays, poems, and stories.  The passion, desire, or love is so great that the subject, gradually forming himself into a critic, relinquishes his ego entirely to his transcendent project of understanding the object as itself, in its beauty, its meaning, and, as entailed by those, in the total organic relation of its parts to its whole.  More than that, literary criticism, nourishing itself on individual items that inflame its ego-dissolving passion, develops an interest in the generic relation of one item to another, thus also in the distinctions of the genres, and in the history of those genres.  The ultimate object of literary criticism would be literature in itself, or the essence of the literary, but the ultimate object would not be identical to the ultimate aim, the telos, of literary-critical vitality.  The ultimate aim or telos of that activity would constitute itself in the transformation of the subject – his raising of himself to a higher level of conscious awareness.  There is an old saying that intelligent readers never, in fact read books; rather, intelligent readers let the books read them.  No serious person who reads a serious book should expect to be the same person afterwards.  Reading, supposed by college students on the basis of their secondary school experience to be a tedious obligation, has been understood by bibliophiles since the Fourth Century BC to resemble mystic initiation, a rite de passage, one of many such in the unwinding journey between birth and death.  We must return to these themes, Eros and so forth, reading as a rite de passage, but let us first tackle the second of the two questions, who or what is a literary critic.


Honest-to-God Literary Critic

A literary critic is foremostly an independent and cultivated person.  He is not a bureaucrat.  He is not first an organization man, a functionary, a partisan, or that insurrectionist creature, the homme de la barricade, and only then a literary critic.  He is rather the nucleus of a passion, the passion being the same, and being set at the same high pitch as, his curiosity.  In her marvelous essay “Hours in a Library” (1916) the novelist Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) distinguishes “the learned man” from “the man who loves reading.”  Woolf’s “learned man” is a researcher whose aim in tackling the tome is solely “to discover some particular grain of truth upon which he has set his heart.”  Of “the reader,” however, Woolf writes that he “must check the desire for learning at the outset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill what it suits us to consider the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading.”  Notice the paradox – by no means the only one – in Woolf’s formulation.  The passion of the reader is disinterested.  That is, the passion is not looking for anything in particular, except its own fulfillment, but it opens itself to whatever its readerly quest has to offer, which is only another way of saying that Woolf’s reader lets the books read him.  We might say then that literary criticism is an activity that begins with the bracketing of the ego.

If reading were a rite de passage, it would also be a passage.  Here, too, we can benefit further from Woolf’s subtle paradoxes.  We should not suppose that Woolf disdains reading as a cognitive adventure.  When she avers that the reader never begins with the aim of locating a “particular grain of truth,” she makes no case against truth nor does she dissociate truth or knowledge from literature.  On faith or intuition – but of the two words, faith is the better – the reader, as we might characterize him, sets out on an enticing path, knowing neither its extent, as it disappears into undiscovered country, nor the sights that he might see along the way, nor finally its destination.  And yet he feels, somehow, that his destiny lies, for the time being, in its destination although that destination has not yet disclosed itself nor can it.  With perseverance, sustained by faith, the pilgrimage becomes experience, which in turn becomes knowledge, and it all affirms itself, supposing that the novel, the play, the poem, or the story is excellent, in the arrival.  Here, again, we encounter a paradox, one that concerns education generally as well as reading especially: We perforce read forwards but we only ever understand, that is, we only ever come to knowledge, backwards.  No experience can guarantee itself before it has concluded, whether it is reading a poem, entering a marriage or a career, or embarking on a pilgrimage. Reading a book, like living life, entails a wager, but a wager is an act of the will and thus freely made.  Both literature and literary criticism belong to the realm of freedom.  Literary criticism is a free activity.

Literary criticism implies the exploration of aesthetics and kallistics, the sciences respectively of how we perceive the beautiful and in what the beautiful consists whether it concerns Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Michelangelo Buonarroti’s David.  It will behoove someone who wishes to become a literary critic to gain some insights about aesthetics and kallistics.  The term itself – literary criticism – although it is something of a solecism nevertheless tells us provisionally what it is.  We remark that the term is a solecism, violating the stylistic preference for knitting Latin words only to other Latin words and Greek words only to Greek, but it is a rich solecism.  The Latinate word literature communes with the Latinate word letters, as in the letters of the alphabet.  Literature arises on the basis of letters; it is literate, and any item of it must employ the written, as opposed to the spoken, word.  Cautioning against any reduction to the pure materiality, we might invoke the textuality of the novel, the play, the poem, or the story.  Any instance of any of these will make its appearance as a text, with an implicit texture, and each will differ from all others.  The word criticism stems from a Greek etymon, which had aboriginally an agricultural meaning.  Krinein verbalized the act of separating the grain from the chaff.  Criticism also separates.  Criticism judges and it assesses: It proposes to rank things by the fineness of their quality; it operates according to principles that partake in invariability.  Literary criticism is the free activity of discerning the degree of integrity, and therefore, also, the degree of beauty among novels, plays, poems, and stories.

Aristotle of Stagira

Teacher of Alexander the Great

We have written that while literary criticism seeks no precise item of knowledge whose existence it knows in advance, it concerns itself with knowledge even so, but knowledge of what?  The founder of literary criticism, Aristotle of Stagira (384 – 322 BC), furnishes the classical answer: Poetry, which is Aristotle’s word for what we call literature, consists, like every art, in mimesis or imitation, and what poetry imitates or represents is human nature.  Poetry’s “objects of imitation,” Aristotle writes in his Poetics (Section II), “are men in action.”  Poetry, as Aristotle continues, in its representation of human nature necessarily makes moral distinctions, but it makes them in a detached way.  Poetry will show, for example, what types of consequences follow from their corresponding causes or actions or states of mind.  Poetry, in Aristotle’s view, makes evident the laws of anthropological or moral causality.  It is however important to remark that under Aristotle’s view poetry is not a moral homily, nor is it a primer of acceptable behavior.  The poet’s curiosity about human experience, from which morality gradually arises, is objective and scientific.  From Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy and epic verse we can draw out his implication that literature is humanity’s method of externalizing an image of itself so that it might study and know itself.  Because literature itself is anthropological in its interest and because literary criticism studies literature, literary criticism must contain the same anthropological component as its object.

One of Aristotle’s parentheses in the Poetics recommends itself for its insight and significance.  Aristotle, in investigating the origins of the genre that he considered to be supreme, namely tragedy, remarks that tragedy certainly, but the other genres probably also, originates in religious ritual.  From sources other than Aristotle, we know in fact that tragedy (from the Greek tragos or “goat” and aiodos or “song”) began in the annual rites of the god Dionysus, and that, under the archonship of Solon, the Athenians sought to domesticate those rites by bringing them under the aegis of the city.  Aristotle conducts a bit of etymological research when he reminds his readers that the word drama originates in the Dorian verb drân, which means to conduct a rite fastidiously.  In the Nineteenth Century, Classical scholars such as Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) and Jane Ellen Harrison (1850 – 1928) picked up Aristotle’s clues about the relation of art, and not least of literature, to religion and ritual and followed them up.  Although both Nietzsche and Harrison were secular persons, their research, as in the former’s Birth of Tragedy (1870 and the latter’s Themis (1912), led them to the convergent conclusion that art, and not least literature, stood in seamless continuity with religion and that literature especially carried on religion’s project of representing humanity to itself.  In Nietzsche’s view and Harrison’s, art likewise inherited and absorbed other qualities of religion.  They both noticed, among other things, that the aesthetic subject’s absorption in the objet-d’art resembles the celebrant’s absorption in the ritual; that the time of art resembles the time of ritual; that the one like the other differentiates itself from secular time; and that participation in the objet-d’art like participation in the ritual results in a higher pitch of consciousness.

Woolf 02

Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1921)

Woolf was keenly aware of the effect of reading on consciousness.  In “Hours in a Library,” she writes how the reader in feeling the attractive power of absolute authority, “will have nothing to do with the smaller men, although they deal with the world he lives in”: but rather “he will go back to the classics, and consort entirely with minds of the very first order.”  According to Woolf, the reader, communing with those “minds of the very first order,” assumes a stance wherein “he holds himself aloof from all the activities of men, and, looking at them from a distance, judges them with superb severity.”  For Woolf, contemporary literature need not lack value, but the reader must exercise discernment in submitting to it.  Knowledge of the Classics, which two-and-a-half millennia of criticism have nominated to their station, permits best of all such discernment.  The relation is not reversible.  Woolf was herself a modern novelist, some of whose works have since her death attained something like a Classical status, but she recognized that the selection from the mass of contemporary literature – of any age – would necessarily be the prerogative of a future generation.  The critical perspective logically orients itself to the past.  “It is oddly difficult in the case of new books,” Woolf writes, “to know which are the real books and what it is that they are trying to tell us, and which are the stuffed books which will come to pieces when they have lain about for a year or two.”  Literary criticism would therefore be an endeavor that suspends any contemporary prejudice and seeks to grasp the expressions of previous ages in their own terms, as much as possible, and to verify the validity of those terms.

That literary criticism should orient itself to the past and that it should quest after the intensification of consciousness go together.  The present age never invented consciousness, but, as it did with literature and the arts, and indeed with the overarching concept of civilization, it inherited it.  The origin of consciousness, to which the arts and language point, lies in a remote and formative past.  As the gradualistic theory of the origin of consciousness seems unlikely (how could there be a halfway point between non-consciousness and consciousness?), an evenemential theory of that origin must take its place.  Consciousness must have dawned immediately as an event.  The first moment of consciousness must moreover have befallen the subjects of it as an experience of total awe at the highest pitch.  The many myths of Creation no doubt echo that moment, but so too does every ritual.  As Harrison argues, and following her Mircea Eliade (1907 – 1986), the salient function of ritual is to recreate the past – or more particularly to recreate in vital freshness some particular moment of the past that the community regards as its very origin or foundation.  Consider in this light that whenever Sophocles’ Oedipus the King manifests itself in performance, it is identical to itself.  Even supposing that we perform it, not in its original Attic, but say in English, the order of its events, the gist of its speeches, and the characters of its dramatis personae remain the same.  Supposing again a fine performance, the effect on the audience, what Aristotle called the catharsis, must also be the same.  Insofar as literature is ritualistic, it seeks the recreation of a primordial, refreshed state of consciousness.  Insofar as literary criticism immerses itself in literature, it too seeks the recreation of a primordial, refreshed state of consciousness.

Flammarion Woodcut

The Flammarion Woodcut

We emphasize once again that such a primordial, refreshed state of consciousness will be a higher state of consciousness than the everyday, routine state of consciousness.  Such a higher state of consciousness is what differentiates ritual or aesthetic time from banal or routine time.  Woolf recognizes this when she writes how the reader, as distinguished from the learned man, is: “A man of intense curiosity; of ideas; open-minded and communicative… [who] trudges the high road [and] climbs higher and higher upon the hills until the atmosphere is almost too fine to breathe in.”  Woolf’s figures are just that – figures.  They are metaphors, for reading, like meditation, makes no outward display.  We should observe, and not at all by the way, that modern colleges and universities are among the most bureaucratic, banal, and routine-dedicated of all modern institutions.  They have become especially bureaucratic, banal, and routine-oriented in recent decades.  Colleges and universities would, by their character, be the places in modern society least attuned to the requirements of the free and consciousness-expanding activity of literary criticism, and this is in fact the case.  In context, literary criticism has become a dissenting activity that puts itself at odds with the modern institutional requirement of intellectual conformity.  Being a mode of free inquiry, literary criticism will frighten and outrage the institution, but this will only attest the human necessity of free inquiry.

Consider how a poem by the American poet Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955), from his collection Transport to Summer (1947), comports itself rhetorically with Woolf’s outdoor figures despite seeming to be at variance from them:

Stevens House was Quiet Reformatted

Stevens’ verses mold themselves to an incantatory pattern, as does the litany in a ritual.  The reader of the poem will not only become aware of the repeated phrase “the house was quiet,” and of the varied pattern in “the world was calm” and “a calm world,” but he will also, supposing him to read silently, become aware of participating in the calm and the quiet.  He will see himself represented in the poem; or rather he will cease to be his banal self and he will become one with the ideal figure represented in the poem.  Repetition is usually stultifying, but Stevens only ever repeats in a new and accumulating context.  The phrases gain meaning in each of their subsequent iterations.  The repetitions and slight variations thus exercise a paradoxical intensifying effect.  Stevens writes that “the reader became the book.”  The syntax matters.  Stevens specifically refuses to put it the other way around.  The book, a World-View in and of itself, must sublimate the reader and the reader must permit that sublimation.  In sublimating the person, of course, the book becomes, itself, a person; or perhaps it was a person all along.  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831), the culminating German idealist philosopher, suggested in his Lectures on Aesthetics (1827) that every genuine artwork is, in fact, a person and should be addressed as such.

Portrait of Wallace Stevens Wearing a Suit

Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1957)

Following Hegel, perhaps, of whom he was at least aware, Stevens attributes the quality of consciousness to the book.  After the reader becomes the book, the summer night takes on a semblance of, or likens itself to, “the conscious being of the book.”  The reading experience levitates the reader, who, as the poem puts it, “leaned above the page.”  The poem attributes Eros to the reader who, leaning, “wanted to lean, wanted much most to be / The scholar to whom the book is true.”  Stevens’ poetic diction in “much most” produces an outstanding emphasis, which communes with Woolf’s formulation of “intense curiosity.”  A lazy objector might press the case that Steven’s “scholar” little resembles Woolf’s Wordsworthian climber of steep hills, but the etymology of scholar would dispose of the objection.  The words scholar, scholarly, and school derive from the Greek skolia or “leisure.”  As for leisure, it is what one creates who steps aside from the banality and routine of the secular world in order that he might meditate on things, not least himself, his own nature, in a rarified atmosphere where matter transcends itself as spirit so that the Self might undergo mystic metamorphosis.  To such a one indeed “the summer night” would be “like a perfection of thought.”  Why dark night and not bright day?  Night has immemorially reserved to itself a mysterious quality that day abruptly banishes.  Night is the death before the rebirth; it is the time of the ancestors, of the fetch, and of the Mysteries themselves, of which the initiated may not speak under threat of divine chastisement.

Stevens’ “The House was Quiet” might deliberately echo an earlier poem that also invokes night, discovery, and transcendence, while linking them to the act of reading.  John Keats (1795 – 1821) writes in his sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (1816) how on encountering an Elizabethan translation of Homer’s Odyssey, “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.”  Astronomy, which watches the skies, traditionally goes to work at night.  Modern astronomy seeks no meaning in the sky, but ancient astronomy sought it there.  Discovering a new planet would imply establishing a new connection with the celestial realm and the raising to awareness of a hitherto unsuspected influence from the sky.  The event, in other words, would be full of meaning because meaning, a notoriously difficult word to define, is about connections.  Stevens’ poem evokes meaning.  The poem ends on a single long sentence spanning most of the penultimate and all of the ultimate stanzas: “The truth in a calm world, / In which there is no other meaning, itself // Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself / Is the reader leaning late and reading there.”  The reader will observe that in the series of ascending identities that structure the stanzas, truth and meaning communicate.  Truth is here an important concept.  It refers to what is objectively the case, whether anyone acknowledges it or not.  Truth is a non-relativistic concept.  In attaching truth to meaning, Stevens guarantees that meaning also transcends the relativism of the merely subjective.  Ultimately, a poem is an attempt to articulate reality – it is the poet’s urgent plea to the reader to participate in the mystery of being that a world might thus be constituted.

Woolf anticipates Stevens’ conviction when, in her essay, touching in her final paragraph once again on the topic of the Great Authors, she writes how in addressing them “all our faculties are summoned… and some consecration descends upon us from their hands which we return to life, feeling it more keenly and understanding it more deeply than before.”  We might bring this little discourse to an end, not entirely foreordained, by remarking that literary criticism is, like the thing that it studies, an attempt to articulate reality; and that it is a response to the urgent plea by the literary creator to participate in the mystery of being.  Literary criticism strives to consecrate, to resurrect, and to understand more deeply than before.

*The doctrine of the somatic attribute is, of course, not a theory about literature, but an ideology concerning authorship.

See also The Ula-Lu-La-Lu & Consciousness

6 thoughts on “First-Day Lecture to the Lit Crit Students

  1. Pingback: First-Day Lecture to the Lit Crit Students | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: First-Day Lecture to the Lit Crit Students | Reaction Times

  3. We must remain readers; we shall not put on the further glory that belongs to those rare beings who are also critics. But still we have our responsibilities as readers and even our importance. The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. And influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print. And that influence, if it were well instructed, vigorous and individual and sincere, might be of great value now when criticism is necessarily in abeyance…If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work? And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would an end worth reading. – Virginia Woolf, “How Should One Read a Book”

  4. Since I have read Wuthering Heights in my undergraduate years I have been trying to figure out why I have constantly come back to reading and rediscovering certain things about these women over the last 15 years. Usually when someone says, “I have been trying to figure out,” he means it as something negative. I mean this in the most positive way. I have reread the novels of the Bronte Sisters several times. I have barely touched their poetry. Still, I am at a loss to name an overarching reason why I enjoy reading their works, biographies, and criticisms of their works. I would say this could be a ultimate manifestation of passion and a certain sense of vitality. I could name several general reasons, but finding the ultimate reason may be futile because of something I can’t explain. I guess I read so much about these women and their novels because I do. I am wondering how this ultimately answers the two questions you pose.

    • Art is revelatory. Revelation is beautiful. The beautiful is both good and true. The work of Bronte sisters is art. Your soul has naturally turned to one of the sources of its nourishment.


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