At its root, etymologically, a “critic” is a “judge.”
Reading critically does not simply, or even primarily, mean judging what we read: instead, it means reading to understand the judgment that gives life to a text: the life of judgment in a text that is also, at the same time, a judgment of life.
We read literature, that is, to come into contact with life–the life of words, of characters and their societies, and of the individual and social imaginations that conceive them. But we all of that depends upon, and is contained within, the judgments that make up a work.
What does that mean? A judgment is the recognition that one thing is not something else; at a further remove, perhaps, it is the recognition that one thing ought not to be something else. It can be an act of identification or evaluation, or both.
A work of literature is a judgment of life insofar as it is a judgment that life is one way and not another, and that life ought to be one way and not another. But that judgment of life happens at the same time as another sort of judgment, springing from the author or intelligence we can imagine behind a text: the judgment that one plot, tone, scene, exchange, phrase, or word is right, rather than another.
We understand how a work of literature judges life when we understand the judgments that make up the work of literature itself: what it includes and what it excludes, what it selects and how it arranges its parts, in distinction to other possible selections and arrangements. The reasons we can imagine for those selections and arrangements will have to do with what the work (or author) judges life to be, or what the work (or author) judges life ought or ought not to be.
A judgment that the language of a text ought to be one way rather than another depends on a sense that the world is one way and not another; the language is “right” for life.
If we do not attend to the life of judgment in a text, we cannot fully attend to its judgment of life. We cannot read critically–or appreciatively, since in judging what life is, a text reveals something of the world to us.
There is no single way to come into contact with the life of judgment in a text, but one way is to start with the words on the page, and to ask, “why this word rather than another.” That is, one way is to let language lead. And that means starting with words that strike us as weird because they defy expectations or surprise, move, or unsettle us.
Even though starting with individual words is not the only way to come into contact with the life of judgment or the judgment of life, whether we begin there, or elsewhere, with a description of a work, an analysis of a technique, a discussion of its tone, an account of perspective, or an account of the quality of imagination we feel must be directing it, the judgment rests on the words themselves; they are the roots that nourish it.
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How does language becomes charged—with new significance and meaning? Through techniques as it is placed against and within forms and as it selected and arranged according to the author’s judgment of what life is like and what is required to apprehend and meet it. Criticism: an account of how, when, and whether language is thus charged.
Words charge the world; the world charges words. Charges, transitive and intransitive: charges and charges with: a purpose, responsibility, commitment. Charged–not by virtue of word alone–but arrangement of words, relation and form; and judgment of world, its relations and forms.
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True criticism: a convergence of awareness of the form of art, the form of judgment, and the form of life it apprehends. To come into contact with a work of art is to come into contact with its form, with the form of its author’s judgment, and with the form of life it presents.
Criticism: an account of technique, where technique is neither affectation nor ambition, but instead that which works and makes work possible. Technique is a response to a difficulty; in a literary work, that difficulty is life and the world, seeing them and apprehending them aright. Often to work out why a work that feels successful also feels confusing is a step to appreciating its application of technique; at other times, we may discern a device or habitual approach an author takes, and in so doing arrive at an account of technique. Form is the outcome of techniques rightly applied; to study form is to study techniques; the study of forms without techniques is incomplete, and vice-versa. Whereas form is the relation among parts and the limits of those relations and the parts themselves, technique is whatever verbal means establish those parts. When we read, say, Keats’ letters critically, it is easier initially to account of their form–but the letters themselves are susceptible to analysis because they are also technical accomplishments, even if the techniques are the products and extensions of a partially conscious or subconscious judgment felt along the nerves. If we feel a verbal strategy or decision answers a difficulty, it can be discussed as technique. Technique issues in form because it is the verbal arrangement by which judgment represents, registers, reconciles, or resolves the difficulty. Authors do not need to know their techniques; but what in them is perhaps an instinctive handling of words to effect certain ends, or an intuitive way of working language, becomes technique in the critical discussion; technique makes “how something is done,” communicable and open to scrutiny, generalizing it beyond the single instance enough to imagine other cases, other contexts, other possibilities. I can start with a sense that something somewhere in a text is disquieting or perplexing or good, and then say what it is, and as I say what it is, and what is happening there, growing more articulate and thorough, I reach towards a discussion of what is happening in terms that become technical; it is difficult to say where technique begins and where it ends, and often the act of saying what is happening in and through the words will lead one to say what is happening with and to them. What starts as a discussion of a particularly striking detail or unusual choice will come to seem, by further analysis and comparison, an instance of a technique. An account of technique in literature, or art, need not, and perhaps should not, rely on technical jargon; it should not be arid and lifeless; it needs to recognize both the fullness of the challenge to which an author is responding, as well as the variety, versatility, and life of the medium (language) by which the challenge is met. Technique is not a final destination for criticism. But neither is it a starting point; it is a place to which critics can aspire, as a topic of analysis, whether it is of the consequences, circumstances, or variety of techniques, in the understanding that works of art cannot be reduced to techniques, and that genuinely powerful literature will depend on and deploy techniques in ways that exceed analysis, so that a critical discussion of their power must go beyond technique.
I’ve learned from other critics the breadth and variety of technique, and the range of critical techniques by which those of literature can be discerned and described, in light of the real thought and feeling for the world behind them.
How to reckon with the form of a work of literature—without falling into the trap of believing literature itself to be a form? Verbal analysis and genre history for poetry; something less defined or at least less precedented for novels. But taking form as the object, without the implications, explanations, or significance of “form” being known beforehand for any work–that is the critic’s problem. After all, there is enjoying something and there is enjoying the form of something, and all that the form entails and apprehends, and the latter is a work of art.
The task of criticism—as an evaluation of literature—is, first, to work out which poems or novels “get the conditions of judgment within the judgments themselves,” which entails interpreting them to make sense of how the language and form contains both judgment and validating ground—or not—and then, secondly, as a matter of comparison, to work out the limitations or reach of the judgments themselves: whether the judgments are conditioned by narrow or broad experience, whether they are in themselves persuasive and subtle. Criticism, in the first sense, is not optional for a reading of literature; to read literature well is to engage in such criticism. Criticism, in the second sense, is not demanded by reading any particular work, but is integral to arranging works in an order, to comparing them, and often happens by necessity in the course of a full hermeneutic recovery of a work, when a reader feels what a work can and cannot answer about life.
It is helpful to think of a literary work as an instance of harmonized resistance or else resistant harmony. When we read a work of literature, we feel that something is clicking into place; we also often feel that an author is pushing back against… what? A great many things.
The resistance of a work of literature can be within an author’s mind, or between an author and others; usually it is both, since language is both individual and social.
When you read work of literature, and want to understand it ethically or politically, remember that an author’s judgment that the world is a certain way, and their decision to show it one way rather than another, is a judgment about what is right; the reason to think something is right implies that some other ways (maybe not all other ways) are not right, or not as right. At the very least, an author is resisting other ways of using language and imagining and showing the world.
There are many questions you can ask about what is resisted in a work of literature:
What feelings, ideas, ideologies does this resist?
What conflicts or debates does it refuse to ignore or settle too easily?
What response to a particular situation in life does it refuse?
What extremes, which others in the same situation might feel, does it avoid?
What is the cliche, or second-rate plot, or lazy phrasing that it refuses? Why?
What reconciliation does it accept–when does it resist even further resistance?
How does it resist wrong or false feeling?
The critic William Empson said that intelligent authors are “less at the mercy of their own notions.” What notions or ideas about the world does this author employ or hold, but also resist?
There is no saying what resistance will look like beforehand: Decorum can be resistance; obscenity can be resistance. Formal rhetoric can be resistance; colloquial dialect can be resistance. Despair can resist false consolation; equanimity can resist despair.
Authors–like all artists–are heroes of resistance, and that resistance can take many forms. Some write from positions of power, even oppression: their resistance will take heroic form when they extend their imaginations against the structures that support them in life. Milton’s depictions of Eve and Satan are perhaps the greatest examples in English literature. Others write from positions on the margins of power, or from oppressed placed in a society: their imaginative resistance will take other forms. Sometimes the scale and scope of resistance will be cosmic; sometimes global; sometimes national; sometimes local; sometimes within a center of power, against others in that center.
Sometimes, a work of literature’s resistance may be nearly absolute in its negativity: aimed against something. At other times, it may be positive, resisting something by building up an alternative.
It all depends on how a text places itself–on how it conceives of, and apprehends, how it is placed in the world. (To be successful, it’s judgments–how and what it resists–need to communicate also the circumstances of resistance).
Among all that literature shows, not least is the variety of forms and directions resistance may take, and the variety of harmonies it may produce.
C.S. Lewis is not only an excellent critic; he is the only critic whose voice, internalized, thought-through, allows for the digestion of other critics (Eliot, Davie, Empson, Ricks, Blackmur), their insights and perceptions in salient, concise, detachment. His critical style is a membrane for digesting criticism as well as literature.
To understand the tightness of a work of art: to understand the judgment behind it, the judgment it is, and the judgment it represents.
The words on the page moving forward into an imagined place, feeling their way by the light of what is behind them, responding to what they discover as they go, so as to apprehend and place it, and are themselves animated by it. The drama of reason in the drama of language; language conducting itself; the judgment attuned outwardly and inwardly.
We ask? Why? What do they see? What is changing? What is being felt?
What the words are and how they move (conduct themselves, behave) responds to where they are and what they encounter.
By better understanding what they are and how they move, we better understand the place where they move, how they place us, and what they bring into focus and take hold of there.
(When they impose feeling or impose significance, rather than feel and discover and respond to what is there, they fail).
Critics read as ethnographers: of characters and situations, but ultimately of language and the text itself, as well as the authors and societies that write it.
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What good reasons might an author have for feeling that these words are responsible to an experience of a place (of being thus placed)?–
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An encounter with a work of art: these are responses to a world I would not, could not have; perhaps because that world is not entirely mine–but for which I can posit valid reasons nonetheless, reasons that speak to my experience of the world, that seem responsible toward it, and towards the work as a whole, giving them what they need and what they are owed.
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Language is not the ultimate condition of our being, but it is an aspect of that condition, a site and source of judgment, and requiring judgment in return. In literature, we find judgment trained through and upon language at once. How? This is what is understood. Such understanding not a foundation, but a foothold, in the flux.
Literature, language–cannot save us, but are ways of knowing ourselves as not saved and ways of wondering what saving could mean.
What is the ethical, and by extension political, element in literature? The ethical refers to a good life, a flourishing life, but also to a life that does good, that acts correctly; and somewhere in that thought is a notion of responsibility, of responding properly to the world, according to right reasons. Responsibility involves a recognition of what is owed to another and what that other needs if it is to be rightly (properly) itself.
The work of literature begins with a character, a place, a word, a cadence. What does that require? Why? That question is what endows a work of literature with its center of gravity, its necessity: not that it had to be this way to be unified as a whole, but it is unified as a whole because its parts respond to one another, to what they represent and constitute, and to the world beyond; and they are felt to be responsible to something, to one another, to what they represent and constitute, and to the world. The single word on the page opens a horizon of possibilities, but the selection among them can only proceed from a sense of what is required, needed, by that word; what is owed to it for it to become something that responds to the world, or to itself respond to the world.
When we ask why a work as it is, we are asking about the reasons, and the reasons are held to be right when they are felt to respond correctly to the world and to the ends that the work establishes and seeks; the reasons are valued when they recognize what is owed and not owed, when they are responsible.
Formalism that asks why something is the way it is cannot be, if fully pursued, arid or empty.
If to know the world, I must represent or model it, and if knowledge can be distinguished from opinion as a a representation that allows understanding (perception of new features and puzzles in the world, new ways of classifying and relating them so as to construct and combine models), then literature is not always, and not usually a form of knowledge. It does not represent or model as directly as that; but it is constructed on a foundation of knowledge and implies understanding.
It is not, then, knowledge usually itself. It is instead an act of judgment. It is a marshaling of language to transfigure and harmonize the relation of person, place, time against the fragility, finitude, and desire of life. The means are distinct to literature; the aim is common.
Nelson Goodman presents a compelling philosophical account of art. But he brackets evaluation as a concern of criticism. In so doing, he evades the role of judgment in art, in so far as that judgment can only be accounted for by criticism of particular works: by accounts of their judgment that take seriously their own aspirations to the rightness that Goodman rightly places at the center of art. But the rightness of art is not the correctness of knowledge; it is rightness that can be evaluated by the work’s ambitions and by the relation of the work to others of similar kind.
Understanding finitude, fragility, Eros.
Understanding as resistance.
Understanding as judgment.
Understanding as reconciliation.
. . .
Is literature an act of resistance? How could it not be, trying as it does to see something clearly on its own terms, in terms proper to it? Doing that means directing pressure inwards, bringing something into focus, but also outwards, against other, worse, or wrong ways of seeing and imagining, and so clearing space. The greatest literature clears most space and brings most into focus. There’s really no doing one without the other but to give the appearance of pushing back without bringing into focus is portentous; to attempt to bring into focus without clearing space yields sentimentality and kitsch. Clear space for what? A significance otherwise missed.
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Literature as resistance–pressure exerted against, clearing space from: the greater the presence, the greater the literature, felt against so much of life. Not what does it represent–what does it make space for? Two extremes of failure: literature that pushes back without clearing space for something, on behalf of something brought into focus (portentous, insisting on itself); literature that tries to bring something into focus without pushing back (sentimental, kitsch). They are pushing back with all their judgment on and in language; to assess the pressure understand the judgment and language.
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Art embraces situation–the fact of being situated. It harmonizes the disparate elements of any given situation into a unity of apprehension, judging how they are of that situation, recognizing, implicitly, what it means to be of a situation.
How and what does it place? What is its place?
. . … …..
Works of literature differ first not in what they are or what they yield but in what they ask of us, and who we find ourselves to be in order to read them—and that is what they give. There is only reading carefully, wholly.
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We respond to a work when we respond to it’s reasons for being what it is, doing what it is, whether we are fully aware of them or not, and those reasons are themselves judgments about the world and about why it is right to be a certain way in the world, or why it is right to know the world a particular way. That a work seems to contain such reasons, and to answer to them, is what is meant by the “autonomy” of art, just as the self-conscious responsiveness to reason is the autonomy of a person. It is because art contains reasons within itself–because it contains the conditions of its judgments within its judgments–that it takes on the quality of “self.”
Art does not transform or transfigure life. How could it? But it takes something that is not alive, without life—language or paint or tones—and it transforms it into into something with a distinct selfhood. Hence it’s a form of creation—but not the creation of life. And the encounter with it is significantly different from an encounter with life: it is instead an encounter with selfhood divorced from life, autonomy and identity without life. But it is also a selfhood that knows (i.e. apprehends) life: its reasons for being as it is owe to life’s being as it is, and so it can instruct and accompany and attune us to what we are, to what is, while being something else entirely.
Our inquiring into and making sense of a work’s reasons is what happens within a hermeneutic exchange. The dialogue is not with an author; it is with a work. But the author provides a way of understanding where in history the work is placed, and acts as a ground for imagining its reasons.
And how is the self of art encountered? As a shining from shook foil, sometimes more, sometimes less intense; more and less sustained; more or less insistent, inflicting, or accommodating. When the sense of self is other–inhuman but present, a unity, an identity, with autonomy–that perhaps is when the experience is aesthetic: not “beauty,” but a category of appreciation of selfhood that is partly distinct from the ethical, because not human, but continuous with it, either because it owes itself to the human or because the human is dependent upon it (as in the natural world); it might be thought an aesthetic-ethic.
There might, after all, be something like an “aesthetic-ethic” education possible after all: not forcing students to recognize that such-and-such is valuable, but leading them to experience this particular category of self, providing them with the tools to recognize its selfhood, and with the principles–the nubs of hard-won insight, rules of thumb, and orienting instances–to help them make sense of what they are valuing. Paraphrasing the philosopher T.M. Scanlon, the end is not to teach others what to value amongst this class of being, but how to value it at all (it’s an exigency of the classroom that the teacher needs to make choices, demonstrate on selected examples, and ask students to gain experience on certain slopes, but the training of a student’s judgment might involve the rejection of any one of them; teachers can’t despair, provided the student is open to second chances). As a practical consequence, teachers are not asking students to master particular texts or models along prescribed lines; instead, they are modeling how to encounter those texts as aesthetic-ethical objects at all, imputing by demonstration, confrontation, and dialogue principles that will help students learn how to orient themselves in their independent engagement with these aesthetic selves, and how to recognize a class of entities towards which such orientation is possible at all. The hardest task, with some students, is asking that they recognize they possess judgment at all.
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Literature: language tuning and attuning the imagination. [To what? can’t be said beforehand. My imagination? An imagination? The imagination?]
Criticism: I need this to happen, to me, or simply to happen, at all ; how is it happening, and should it be happening?
. . . . ..
I don’t know what the world is, or is like,/
Much. But some do, briefly, vividly and violently/ at one with some conception of things:/ how they are conceived and might be./ I do know what makes for a falling out/ A life at odds with life, a failure to see/. But living by such knowledge is not enough,/ meaning, in the final analysis, another surrender to negation./ It must be held off, by whatever resources/this half-done, unmade, unmaking self/ Can hold. “I like to look.” Sometimes, to see, sometimes apprehend and/In wording, to hold what would otherwise/Be no less indifferent to my holding it or knowing it/
There, where is has been left, to be./
Rightly in itself, and right.
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Literature: manifestation and harmonizing of selfhood in the field of language, by means of the judgment orienting by cardinal points: time, history, the body, and nature. How it works, where it works at all, is a mystery to which criticism responds.
. . . .
Self is the dense particularity of inscape; it is the lived inertia of Donne’s wit; it is Browning’s profoundest surprise; it is Dickens’ pained envy and humiliation; it is Austen’s Miss Bates; it is the guilt of the Mariner; it is the bass beneath Don Juan’s voluble tenor; it is Pope’s care and anxiety; it is the poignancy of The Story of the Stone and Recherche du Temps Perdu; it is the way into Stevens’ ways of looking and the egress from the digressions of Sterne and Beckett; it is the residue of anonymity on the nursery rhyme; it is Kafka’s terror and Joyce’s liberty; it is Adam accusing Eve and himself; it is Eve’s pain; it is the moment of Achilles asking himself; it is Ovid’s libidinous libels; it is Ruskin on his Old Masters or New; it is Clare’s nostalgic attentiveness…
Which is to say, it is nothing at all, being everything?
Not quite that: it is what is met in some works, in various fullness and weight, and not others, and it is met and felt as that which defies assimilation into what we already assume and know; it is an alienating power of distinct otherness that clamors to be known as and for itself—it is their autonomy, where autonomy is the intersection of freedom and necessity, both felt at once. It is what makes novelty so shocking and difficult and enduring—meeting them requires the rediscovery of self.
Criticism: to locate and apprehend the self of a work of art.
. . . . . . . . .
How many genuine critical questions? Of evaluation. Three? Four?
Does it insist on itself? Does it “place” its parts adequately? Does it condescend? Maybe and maybe most damningly: does it see its subject?
“Self” is the great recurring discovery of art and of life–not that person or that personality, but self it adheres and inheres and suddenly is met with, in a shock. That is to say something about why the relationship of art and life is both immediate and estranged (the self in art that persists through time, past a life, and beyond or despite a person’s existence, in a great performance for instance, is somehow other than the self we encounter in those we love). It is also to say something–but something only tentative and general–about what it means when art does not “answer,” when it lacks something–that gravity and presence of self is often, I think, what I at least mean. Weight of self, as it can be registered and manifest, in history, in lyric, in time, and in the full range of life’s experiences, is the object of art–though it is a manifold, rather than singular object. It is there in the ancients as well as the moderns, in Achilles’ turn inward, in Anchises’ prophecy in the underworld, in Ovid’s pick-up artistry, as well as in Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Kafka, Joyce, and Gaddis. It is discovered anew by each great poet, novelist, composer. It is felt even in those works of philosophy (Hobbes’ Leviathan; Wittgenstein’s later work; the theology of Simone Weil and Pascal) that feel to some as if they are literary; and in those works of history that bring forth, not necessarily the self of an author, but a sense of what self would mean and be in the past. Criticism then is an assaying of the assaying of self in works, texts, creations–even when the critics don’t utter the word.
Every statement, “The world is…” is a judgment; and when judgments are beyond expectation, catch us with novelty and rightness, and when we feel that they ought to catch others with the same, at other times, beyond their instantiation, we call them “art” or something like it. They seem to carry within themselves their conditions; they validate themselves and yet also conform to what others already know and judge. It’s the task of critics–the game of criticism–to get inside those judgments.
“To get within the judgment the condition of the judgment”–it’s for critics to interpret when and how that happens, and do so by entering into the imagination of the author, knowing that imagination, language, embodiment, historicity/temporality (the consciousness of past and future in relation to present), and a measure of the “natural” are themselves conditions of judgment.
. . . . . . . . .
1) Attend like Ricks
2) Dissect like Empson
3) Wrestle like Davie
4) Demand like Hill
5) Ground like Carne-Ross
Humans are educated (formed, raised up) out of nature into ourselves–into our second nature. Probably all of the humanities offer ways of understanding who we are and what we have been in relation to what is “natural”–albeit in the self-awareness that the “natural” is historical, a term from within our second nature. Art takes its place in this field of understanding–and defining it as only one among an even broader range of undertakings might be among the best ways of having to say what art in general does, but uniquely does. Nelson Goodman’s thought of “semantic density, syntactic density, and syntactic complexity” seems a sufficient set of symptoms if it’s to be further described. To which we might add that it gets the condition of its judgments into the judgments themselves. More narrowly than art, literature, with language providing the symbol system to be densely organized. But the point about nature underlies it all–that there is, in a novel of manners or satire, or realist tome or modernist poem alike, a set of implied judgements about what happens naturally, by nature, in nature, with and against and apart from and within human second nature, life as persons. Even in a work of music, this difference can be felt, though there with special keenness we can see that what is natural is itself a convention, albeit of a different kind.
Art: always a recovery or discovery of nature, against and in the midst of second nature; an apprehension of what second nature is and could and should be; a sounding of the dependence of second nature on nature (“Second nature”: emergent from nature, by education, socialization, self-consciousness, historical awareness).
With each genuinely original artistic imagination, a novel appreciation of the relationship between nature and second nature, driven perhaps by a novel understanding of one or the other, or else of their alignment.
. . .
The gratuitousness of art affords us the luxury of holding it to the strict judgments that are compromised in every other area of life—and so it provides a testing and training ground for those judgments
To enter into, appreciate, and understand the work of the imagination.
Language circulates ceaselessly around us, often enlisted in imagining the world. But we don’t lead language so much as it leads us, into ideas, judgements, and prejudices about the world.
It takes a special skill to train language so that it leads us anywhere new and true (it’s resistant and full of unexpected impulses after all).
The best authors have that skill.
Learning to read literature means learning to let language lead us, in the confidence that it will lead us first beyond ourselves and ultimately back to ourselves, with renewed capacities and resources for imagining the world.
Critics help us learn to read and to appreciate the training in what we read. When a critic “responds” to a text, they are being led–their judgment is being led–somewhere that we often cannot go, and would not go, but that feels entirely owing to the text nonetheless; and they make apparent how it is so owing, so that their sense of it enriches ours.
Understands the goodness of the imagination.
Literary criticism wants to understand how a work of literature truly and intelligent imagines truth—not the truth, not a truth, but the feel and experience of truth, in the capacious understanding that truths might disagree, might be local or universal, might arrive at a glance or as a slow accretion, might flirt and court, or impose their will. Training in criticism is a training in handling the delicate membrane of truth that coats and binds, sometimes smothering, often nourishing, our world.
Literature, Samuel Johnson wrote, helps us better endure and enjoy life. That seems as good a reason to study it as any, except that so many other distractions and actions might be said to do the same and we don’t study those. What of life literature helps us endure and enjoy, how the endurance and enjoyment are both more lasting and more profound, seems worth being able to answer. Why can literature help us to harmonize distinctly well with the world?
It’s tempting to dogmatize and theorize, and I’ve done so from the perspective of a teacher, who feels that some portable framework, a set of knives that will help any student carve up most any work of literature, with sufficient training, is necessary. Thinking along that analogy, and suggesting to students that they need to work with several blades when consuming a work, might be more helpful than theorizing more abstractly. It also suggests, metaphorically, that literature sharpens the blades, each of which cuts more than just the literary meat.
Some then, of the world and life that literature helps us enjoy and endure: the variety and interdependence of judgments about the world and the range of conflicts that they resolve and provoke; the agency of language and the resistance it offers to our thought; the inescapable bodily existence that centers all experience, imaginative, verbal, and otherwise, with attendant satisfactions and dissatisfactions; the horizons of past and future that, sometimes more conspicuously, and other times less, accompany, limit, and orient our actions, plans, regrets, and identities; and the experiences of truth, as a phenomena to which we are subject, which we encounter, avow, and live on and through.
Literature does so via an apprehension of what is possible in the world, in the service of, and served by, a comprehension of what is actual in the world; by way of fictions of truth that themselves sharpen our sense of the true, as we diversely experience it; and by performances of language that constitute judgments about the world, and that contain within themselves their conditions, such that they can be interpreted by those in other places, at other times.
The value, then, of a sustained critical encounter with literature, and an education in such an encounter, is a mind sharpened by and to judgement, language, the bodily imagination, the feel of history, and experiences of truth. The pleasure of criticism, in writing or conversation, is coincident with the deeper nourishment drawn from literature that it affords, from a renewed sense of all that judgment, language, the bodily imagination, the feel of history, and experiences of truth can be and do.
Each work of literature is a statement on how truth is encountered, avowed, decided and met, as well as an attempt at truth. The judgements of a work, like the judgements in a work, are sustained by a truth-telling function that is kin to all those experiences of truth that a work imagines. From a therapeutic perspective, literature consoles us for lives subject to, diffused with truth—and also invigorates us with an awareness of the diversity of experience and thought that are made possible by the element of truth.
The experience of truth is, admittedly, everywhere in the humanities. The historian inquires into what it once was; the anthropologist into what it is across cultures; the philosopher into how it binds, yields or is yielded by thought and being; and the critic into how the experience of truth can be imagined with greater or less sensitivity and intelligence.
Literature compounded of judgments that contain with themselves their own conditions of validity, among the most direct ways to appreciate both judgments and conditions is to ask about how they contain, are subject to, subject others to, register, place, and regard the phenomena of truth—a necessary, common, but volatile element of experience. At one remove from the initial assessment, we can ask how that phenomena features in the horizons of past and future implicit (or explicit) in a work.
The above is an invitation to a proliferation of criticism that talks of “truth” in its diverse formations; but there’s no danger in such an approach of succumbing to the notion of a single truth. To the contrary, it invites a hermeneutic dialogue—not primarily between my truth and the texts truth (though that might enter at a later phase) but through my experience of the truth and the text’s. Hence I might read Dante and think not first whether I can assent to his beliefs but whether I can understand how he might arrive at an absolute experience of truth and then appreciate, or not, how he imagined what other judgements (thoughts and feelings) that experience of truth would entail.
The fear is wild relativism, but I need not, say, accept the experience of truth of a contemporary who denies vaccines efficacy. My experience of truth overlaps sufficiently with theirs for me to reject their rejection of a truth (of established medicine) to which they have access.
Literature helps us enjoy and endure life; that can’t be bettered as a defense for reading. It might be that I seem to be making too much of it, that I’m suggesting literature is too arduously intellectual a pursuit. But of course there’s no need to dogmatically fixate or articulate the experience of truth in a work of literature. But criticism that does not engage with truth in some manner, though with ginger appreciation for its voluble and variable presence in life real and imagined, will not properly be criticism. Criticism is as impoverished when it banishes talk of truth just as it is imprisoned when it subjects itself to a single Truth of Truth that literature, being what it is, refuses us. In saying that, perhaps I’m admitting that even all of this has gone too far.
We know what is good through our encounters with instantiations of it; they become parts of an ongoing upbringing into it. In the case of poetry, in reflecting on whether and why it is good, we reflect on its one judgments on what goodness is possible in history, and in the understanding of the world as defined by its historicity. Criticism is the articulate and self-conscious form of such reflection.
Something fits; it reconciles and resolves; we are fit to it; it to world; some seek to trace how, to fit their sense of it to what it is that fits.
Life dissolves; the judgment resolves. A work of art is the judgment that harmonizes, preserving within itself traces of the dissonance that conditions its resolution. For each occasion, a distinct discord; for each occasion, a distinctly right and rightly timed judgment to effect concord. Here the critical explanation begins: in the consideration of particular works and bodies of work, each with their own conflicts, each with their own harmony.
To start with F.H. Bradley’s crucial phrase, the crux of which is the activity of the artist in whatever medium: “to get the condition of the judgment into the judgment.” The judgment is inseparable from the choice of word, the determination of syntax, structure, and plot; the arrangement of elements and the resolution of form. The condition of the judgment can be variously understood. But here the exemplary twentieth-century critical practitioner, the great reader, William Empson comes to our aid: the assumption he carries is that the condition of judgment must, at bottom, be dissonance and conflict (the many, the changing, the flux of the world; his accommodates itself to the mysticism of philosophers and sages), and that one ought to see the judgment as representing a reconciliation or harmonizing that does something to preserve individual or social sanity. Hence his phrase, “So straddling a commotion and so broad a calm,” to describe the end of literary activity—and all artistic activity, be it in the artefacts of ancient religions or in the modernist novel. Look for the dissonance; assume the resolution. Far from a New Critical dictum, the principle leads to a furious engagement with history, politics, ideology, and the grounds of action. The generosity of the principle grants that dissonance is not confined to matters of ideology alone; that a conflict of feelings, impulses, duties, and desires may also require resolution. The dexterity of his imagination allowed for him to see that, in a work of literature, several resolutions may be had at once. The final corollary of the principle is that a work communicates its dissonance and resolution, granting a reader some relief (the proof of its possibility seems to be that some of us feel a satisfaction from reading literature; the fact that some feel such satisfaction and then want to write criticism to make sense of it suggests that the communication of resolution entails a dissonance of another sort; hence this blog); and that, beyond this, the encounter with works and their resolutions is a promise of some sort of broader understanding and resolution that is possible despite the dissonances between peoples in the present and the present and the past; there is a social and historical function to reading well. Time dissolves; the judgment resolves; the world is full of harmonies, which promise a greater harmony still.
Criticism sounds some, tests others, seeks to reconcile the self to the resolutions that quicken its sense of the world. It asks how the condition of dissonance gets into the judgment that achieves harmony; it asks what dissonance it is, and how the judgment succeeds (or not).
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Criticism is a self-conscious understanding of another’s judgment: the judgments that issue forth as a text, an oeuvre, a work; the judgments of author and era. It does not seek to understand judgment in the abstract, as a philosopher would; it wants to understand judgment in its application of a medium.
Literary criticism is the study of the judgment as it works through language to imagine, as literature does, what is possible and probable, rather than what is actual.
As an exemplary instance of criticism, take Geoffrey Hill’s words on Keats:
When Keats, in Book I of the first Hyperion, is endeavoring to reveal his poisonous now to the Titan in his decline are the ‘spicy wreaths | of incense’ offered up by mortal men, he focuses on the central impression of pollution. Suddenly we find:
Instead of sweets, his ample palate took
Savour of poisonous brass and metal sick.
Our question can be put as follows: what is contributed to the quotation by the word ‘savour’? First, it is getting within the judgment the condition of the judgment, ‘savour’ being so to speak the normative focus of eating or drinking; second, though Hyperion is in one sense helpless, a sufferer, a degree of petulance within the suffering is perhaps suggested by the verb form ‘took savour’ and by the moment of enjambment in which, presumably, he might have come up with some alternative less satisfyingly wounded.
With the phrase, “getting within the judgment the condition of the judgment,” Hill alludes to F.H. Bradley, and sets out an essential aspect of literary criticism’s task. On such a view, the interpretive task of a critic becomes not an explication of meanings or “readings” but a working out of the judgments a poet makes in the choice and arrangement of words and topic, as well as a working out of the conditions of those judgments, as conveyed in the same choice and arrangements; the evaluative task of the critic emerges, implicitly or explicitly from the interpretive task, as the commentary turns to rightness of the judgments in light of the conditions of judgment.
That, then, represents one starting point for approaching literature: the thought that it is in nature of literature to get within its judgments the condition of those judgments, where those judgments are both about what is possible and where, arranged into a grammatical unity, those judgments form a nexus of possibilities; take as a further starting point that the judgments in a work of literature, though not always about history or the body, are nonetheless conditioned by an openness to, and understanding of, history, and a consciousness of bodily life; and as a final starting point the thought that the judgments are effected through language and its formal arrangement.
Why make such a statement? In part, to orient reading practices, in part to orient judgments about literature so that it can be entered on its own terms. With such a statement, we are guided in what to read for, and we are offered suggestions for how to arrive at an understanding of a text—with room left for interpretation both in relation to the judgment to the conditions of judgments, and for articulating the relation of possibilities contained within a work.
Such analysis of judgment and the conditions it contains (the conditions that validate it) is one essential component of criticism: it tells us what standards a work sets for itself, what it tries to achieve, and how well it achieves them.
But the chief tools of criticism, as T.S. Eliot remarked are comparison as well as analysis. The other task of the critic is to determine what sort of thing a work is, or would be; to do so requires comparison with other objects.
In practice, comparison and analysis move in tandem, two legs steadying and propelling; we can better imagine what a work aspires to be, and how it succeeds, by comparing it with others; we can better understand what sort of work we are faced with if we analyze it and understand the conditions of the judgments that it implies.