Literature only happens at a distance from the ideology it depends on for its making; that is why ideological critique of any literary work is possible, without our having to cease reading it as literature, and yet without doing literary criticism. In any work of literature, that is, there is an unresolved debate–playful or savage–between some set of claims to what is and to what seems to be, to what is appearance and what is reality, and literary criticism is a description of the how that debate plays out, an appreciation of the its twists and turns; it is an engagement with ironies of the work that does not need to achieve resolution, and to whose resolution, even when it comes about, the work’s prior structure, denies full closure. Here is where criticism can proliferate its readings, where evaluation is exercised. Such an approach to literature is as ideological as anyone who undertakes it, without itself being, as some theorists have said, ideological. Such an approach only becomes ideological when positing a further claim: that there is no other real way to engage with literature.
Because of course there is another way. Irony ceases where ideology begins, and any literary work needs to have some ground to stand upon; ideology tells us what is real and what is appearance, because what is real has legitimacy and authority; what is appearance does not; ideology settles the case; we need that set of beliefs to structure our lives, to get on with making the world a better place; “progress” and “fundamental rights” might not be absolutely real things, but if we are to decide how to go about living, we have to decide which real things we settle on as real in order to at least mitigate the brute fact of other people suffering or or in order to minimize the degree to which one life depends on making mere instruments of the lives of others. For an author, for the sake of getting on with writing and holding out the play of irony as a possibility, some decision must be made as to what is real and what not, if anything else is to get in the air; ideology, which is what must really settle the matter, lets them do so. It is probably the case that the salutary, ironic suspension of one debate over appearance and reality always depends on another such debate being settled.
The old mystery was why, without sharing, Dante’s beliefs about God, we could read his poetry with the pleasure we do; but such a distance from his religion, and his view of the institutions around the religion, allows for us to appreciate all of the other profound ironies of the poem even more; the underlying order does not much bother us, because we don’t care. The counter-argument would say that we are losing out a great deal owing to our not having to recognize the work that Dante must do in order to sustain his ironies despite having so authoritative a stage. The greatness of that poem, more than any other, might lie in the fact that it is a poem at all; that there is the possibility of any tension between appearance and reality, given that God’s plan has all of the answers. But in part, at least, Dante works around the problem by making his poem a drama of the clash between classical and Christian traditions, so that Virgil’s understanding is always doubted; and in part by making his poem a drama of the clashes within Christianity, so that we are made to wonder what exactly the sin is, or what desire can be redeemed; God’s secret ways leave wide berth for such confusions, and we are left, somewhat like the thieves in Beckett’s version of the story of Christ on the cross, neither presuming nor despairing for some of them.
Here, then, is a second task of criticism, corollary to the first: to examine what work the stage of ideology does for an author, and how much that stage can plausibly sustain; the mystery is greatest for the authors we think of as great–Virgil or Dante or Shakespeare–where we feel like, even though there is a reality to the worlds they present, they are not insisting, from below or from above, what in those works is real; their freedom from the insistence of what matters inside of the works they create, their freedom from imposing upon their works a standard of what counts, and what is real, does not, to us, seem so much to free the works from ideology, but to free them from sentimentality and portentousness. Those are the stains of an author’s decision to tell us what counts, resolving the tension by declaration or manipulation of the game; the problem with either sentimentality or portentousness is that, in the case of either, reality has been settled from without, and the author no longer seems to adhere to the standards of the imagined world in which he has placed his characters or his words. Both sentimentality and portentousness are signs of ideology run amok in art; sometimes, it does so to noble ends (Uncle Tom’s Cabin is always the classic example, but some of Faulkner’s novels could probably be enlisted), whereas other times, the purpose can feel self-serving (Cormac McCarthy?). I suspect that, at their best, the best of the first sort of critics are interested in answering questions about this relationship between ideology and the ironies that dance upon it; they are interested that is, in the relationship between the illusions that sustain and mar everyday life and those that sustain and mar works of art, recognizing that the latter may warp and nurture the former too.
At their very best, such critics also question whether the ideological stage of a work can be justified given the performance it is asked to sustain. This is no longer a question about sentimentality or portentousness. It is instead a question about whether authors have made too few or too many commitments to what is real in order for the irony to succeed; and whether they have made the right or wrong commitments. Here, the ideologies of the critics are inevitably apparent, and this sort of criticism, which is able to be genuine and profound, is probably the most difficult to work out; it is easy to be either narrowly prejudicial or else flabbily complacent. C.f. arguments over Blake between Donald Davie and E.P. Thompson; over Dickens between…any two critics. Why even have such critical arguments? Sometimes, I think, they shed light on questions of what is sentimental or not, and on what is actually being played out on the stage.
Then there’s a third sort of literary criticism entirely. It is the literary criticism in the spirit of Marxism, and modern social theory, but not requiring that intellectual tradition. Philological criticism aspires to something similar. This criticism wants to expose and map the dimensions and sources of the ideological foundations for a work entirely, though the word “ideology” may not be the one employed. The trouble here is that it is liable to go wrong in two ways: 1) the critic will end up assuming something to be ideological foundation which is in fact heavily ironized in the performance of the work itself, 2) the critic hasn’t read enough and so a part of the stage will be assumed to be the whole. The second is less dangerous than the first. It’s so difficult to carry this sort of criticism out because to avoid the first problem, you need to either read a work with great care or rely on critics who have done so, and your assessment of them must be sound; and to avoid the second, you also need to read a lot, period.
To think of critics in this third tradition, I go back in time and across the ocean. Georg Lukacs’s The Historical Novel is a classic of this sort; Curtius’ European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages; most familiarly to the everyday specialist would be Erich Auerbach. What allows their criticism to proceed? For the Marxists, it is the belief that history has meaning; but that can also be a liability for Marxist criticism when the meaning is teleology. For the philologists and the Marxists themselves, it is that history is meaning, that historical change happens when the horizons of available meaning change, and those horizons of available meaning are delimited by material circumstances, techniques of language, the social imaginary–they define the shape and constitution of literature’s ideological foundations. History, for them, makes irony possible, because it provides authors what they need to get literature’s ironies into the air. They are not historians like most others, because they do not study the total system of material, technological, imaginary and symbolic realities at a given period; they are not literary critics of the first and second type because they do not devote their words to describing the play of words in a work of literature; they are historians of the conditions for irony; they are historians of what makes the imaginary possible at any given time.
In his own telling, Auerbach’s criticism grew from Vico, who is, in the European critical tradition, the alternative to Marx or Hegel for critics of the third type. The influence of Vico he explores, or celebrates, in a series of essays, each of which culminates in statements of humanism and historicism, simultaneously, that justify his critical method. Here, from “Vico and Literary Criticism”:
But the peculiar character of Vico’s idea of philology can best be grasped by using his own terms. He opposes philology to philosophy. It is the task of philology to explore what the peoples believe to be true at each stage of their development (though this is only the outcome of their erroneous and limited knowledge), and what therefore serves as a basis for their actions, institutions, and expressions; this he calls certum (“the certain,” or “the established”); the certum is subject to historical change. Philosophy, however, explores unchanging and absolute truth, verum. Now, in Vico’s work we are not allowed to see this unchanging or absolute truth which ever appears in history…The Platonic verum which is partly realized in every age, since every age is one of its aspects, is not contained in any of them. Only in the entirety of history is there truth, and only by the understanding of its whole course may one obtain it. Thus the truth for which philosophy is searching appears to be linked with philology, exploring the particular certa as well as their continuity and connection This connection, the whole course of human history, la commune natura delle nazioni, is the subject of Vico’s work, which therefore may be called a philosophical philology as well as a philological philosophy–dealing exclusively with mankind on this planet.
Auerbach is not a literary historian; he is the rarest sort of critic, the sort who most never ever aspire to be, out of anxiety, practical considerations of professional life, intellectual limitations, or out of failure to properly see the scope of the task. All four apply to me, but I’m fortunate to have met two, maybe three, scholars and critics who can be said to have aspired to this third critical task and regret only not having better understood it earlier.