Critical Provisions

scraps of literary criticism–from the classroom, works in progress, private musings, public soliloquies, barroom disputations, and more.


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.


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“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.


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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.



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