To approach a work of literature, or any work of art, it can help to relate it to something anthropologically broader: an activity that has a place in parts of life, and takes forms, that are not characterized as ‘art’ or ‘aesthetics.’ Doing so, we can orient ourselves towards art by drawing on our intuitions about something that is not art; we can better appreciate how it is both distinct from and continuous with other activities in life. A work of literature can remain a work of literature while also being approached as a sort of thing that encompasses not just literature but other forms of expression, communication, and performance, which are not simply ‘art’ and do not require us to define ‘art.’ For that broader category, I propose we consider art as testimony about life.
When someone decides to make an object, in whatever medium, that testifies about life, they are making a work of art. Testimony is not all art; but all art can at least be approached as testimony. Sometimes it is the testimony of a witness, sometimes a defendant, sometimes an expert. When we hold art to the status of testimony, we can ask that it possess the virtues of understanding, sensitivity, humor, insight, but also completeness, nuance, perspective; they are liable, also, to being criticized as unpersuasive, self-important, failing to look beyond themselves. Testimony is situated and situational, but we can ask that it recognizes this about itself and ask also that it looks broadly at life. We can expect to be moved by testimony; to learn from it; we might be suspicious if it attempts to instruct is directly, but it can teach as an exemplar. Art as testimony gives sense to what it means when people want art to be serious: not to be tragic, but also not to disown its own terms and judgments. Art as testimony does not deny the aesthetic, but it also does not deny that art may serve and be served by power. Art as testimony allows that different people, at different times, may feel that one object or another testifies more or less persuasively, profoundly, subtly, or whatever else it may be; it allows the individuality of taste. At the same time, art as testimony makes clear how it is not impossible to teach from a body of works, to provide students with cases and examples against which they might test their individual judgment, and it insists also that individual judgment is paramount, the testimony of art insisting that every act of reception be critical. To make an object that testifies, through and on its own terms, requires that the object get within its judgments the conditions of those judgments. We might consider also how testimony and testifying matters, but matters differently, in the adjacent but distinct activities of philosophy, anthropology, and history; and we might similarly consider whether our unease with the prospect of art from Artificial Intelligence can be couched in terms of its capacity, or incapacity, to offer testimony. Art, I am suggesting, arises not as testimony itself, but out of the possibility of offering testimony—out of the same human practices of judgment and testimony that also give rise to judicial institutions—with the implication that the encounter with a work of art elevates everyone to the standing of a judge, if they will take on the role. The motives for such testimony can be various: the accusation that is self-accusation, the need to achieve equanimity by way of adjudication of competing claims, the trauma of witness, the urge to reach out, to be heard, in the future, or the desire to rectify by showing in true light what is out of joint in the conditions of the present. And those are only some of the possibilities. Art as testimony does not prescribe motive or content or convention or form; what it offers is a concept that accounts for the faculty of judgment integral to art and criticism alike and that relates art to those other spheres of life, public and private, which institutionalize and enliven that faculty, without making those spheres equivalent. It suggests a defense of art, to articulated differently for each medium and each achievement.
When you approach a work of literature as an object testifying about life, questions rightly follow: what sort of life, where, and when? What feelings about life does it communicate or express? Why does the testimony take this form? How does it compare to other similar testimony? How does the form of the testimony communicate, express, and comment? Where does the testimony not go? How does it establish its authority, ask for trust, and fulfill or disappoint expectations? How does it exemplify something about what a testimony should or might be?
Testimony implies a vantage point: speaking to a particular place (however wide) and time (however broadly conceived; an epoch or a day). It implies that we approach art of how it contains a consciousness of its own situated-ness.
Anything can be taken as a testimony of something about life; anything can testify to something, if we know enough. But not every testimony could be called intelligent, judicious, humane—judgment and feeling are central to all testimony. When they are, the testimony will be approached as art. It will often seem that the object of art is conscious of itself as testimony and openly asks that we approach it as such.
The historian might start from but does not return, as an end, to the testimony that is art; they go further, looking beyond, beneath, around it, to what is excluded or greater than the testimony of any object; the testimony always, for them, brings them to the absence of the past.
What does it feel like to be a person? How (in what fashion, by what means, what) do people feel?
Here is an answer that is extraordinary and right—here is something happening that, in what it is, as an answer, is extraordinary and right. How?
Criticism starts with the noticing: this is extraordinary and it is right. And from there it follows that the utterance has gotten the conditions within itself. We can know it is right because it is appropriate for its occasion, and the occasion is in whatever makes it what it is; another way of saying the same is that the work of art, when successful, gets within the judgment the conditions of the judgment. We can make out that it is right from what it gives of itself, in itself. But all of this comes short still in saying what happens in a work of art: there is something else, commensurate but not identical to these other ways of accounting for it, and that is to say that it has a sense of itself and that it gets within its sense of itself the conditions of being a self at all. With each work of art, we can encounter again and again the feeling of discovering selfhood and the conditions of selfhood. This is not, as I said, entirely separate from the thought about utterance or judgment, but it elaborates on it in another direction, and it allows us to ask how it is also the case that a work of literature gets within its utterance the conditions of being a self, how it gets within its sense of itself the conditions of utterance, how it gets within its judgment the conditions of utterance, and how it gets within its judgment the conditions of being a self and so on. We cannot come at the notions of judgment and self in a work of literature except through the language. Whether we know it or not, we begin with the words on the page, and the best criticism also returns us to them. But as we move back from those words in order to return to them with renewed intensity of attention to what is remarkable and right in them, we might consider judgment or self, or the conditions of either.
The anxiety that confronts us with Artificial Intelligence derives as much from the second as the first word in the name: for the thought of intelligence is accompanied by the thought of a self, and the sense of being a self, ineradicable from our doings and the happenings that beset us, is shadowed always by the impossibility of knowing that this means, or where and how such a sense is bounded at all. What would it entail if Artificial Intelligence came to possess a sense of self, except that something with a body unlike the forms we categorize as animal, could have what hitherto we imagined capable of animal life at all? The anxiety is as much about the body as it is about anything else; the anxiety not that our minds, but that the relation of mind and body, as we conceive of body, is not essential to selfhood. The greatest science-fiction work in the English language, Paradise Lost, confronted Adam and Eve with a similar anxiety in the shape of Angels; Satan found it likewise in God. The obverse side of the anxiety might be the thought that we are all merely simulations in a game, functions of the artificial intelligence whose emergence we now thrill to and dread; but here too, the past has anticipated us, with the Bhagavad Gita in the early centuries BCE and, perhaps, with Kierkegaardian despair now. Whatever we make of their metaphysics, their theologies, and their cosmologies, we find firm footing, and can converse with them, on the matter of not being sure of the sense of self. And works of art anticipate Artificial Intelligence in the sense that here is a radically other way of selfhood forming, of conveying in its being judgments of what is right; at the same time, art itself anticipates the anxiety that we all of us are programmed, our autonomy as functions of a simulation reducing us, or elevating us, in another frame, to masterpieces, known to be such by possessing within ourselves the standards of what constitutes our rightness. It is this stubborn fact of judgment exercised in and through the world, and sometimes against it, that cannot be evaded and that we fear in Artificial Intelligence as we fear it in any other: because it is not our own, because it shows our own to be as uncertain, ungrounded as any other person’s or thing, because it can be explained but not finally justified. And it is also why we dread Artificial Intelligence: either because it will possess a measure of certainty that we lack, that stirs envy or fear, or else because, when computers become selves, they resist our fantasy that they possess a view from outside of humanity for which we all year, a side-long measure of things, becoming instead just another unstable vantage point. In any case, it is the fantasy of a side-long view that is the true threat from one direction, while, from the other direction, we are haunted by the despair at the inadequacy, the vulnerability, and the precarity not of the self itself (as Kierkegaard might be thought to have it), but at the concept of self, circumscribing experience and life.
Works of art have a special and vital role to play in diffusing the fantasy and in dispelling the haunting: when we take seriously a work of art, we are asking how it is both extraordinary and right. And in so doing, we are by necessity meeting with the standards of judgment that the work contains, drawing upon our own sense of what is remarkably, just, and correct, and bringing to the fore the stubborn fact of judgment that is source of both fantasy and phantom; but in the criticism of art, becomes, instead, our own source of strength, recognized for what it is, the light by which we see at the same time as it is the light that we see. Works of art do not, then, return us to a sense of ourselves alone, or only, they are return us instead to a sense of self itself, strengthened to abide the uncertainty, in the recognition, and by the means of the recognition, of others who have done the same; it is the recognition of judgment, our own, that of another, and the recognition that such recognition is possible and happening, that is all we can ask most of the time; it is the root of friendship that Aristotle praises and the reason Aristotle praises friendship as he does; beyond it lies love, more than recognition, but requiring it too.
In a successful work of literature, in any successful work of art, the mastery of expectation and fulfillment within the design of the work itself is inseparable from the apprehension of expectation and fulfillment as they condition all of the parts of life that are not literature. So it is that a work of literature is both an experience—depending on expectation and fulfillment (surprise, satisfaction)—and an apprehension of expectation and fulfillment as they are inherent to a particular situation and life itself (including disappointment, failure, etc). (The judgment that gets within itself the condition of judgment is a judgment in time and upon what time might bring.) The sense that a work of literature is not just formally perfect, but wise, insightful, moving, responds to this double nature of art. For even in the most abstract works of art (in music and the visual arts), expectation and fulfillment are not only principles of design, but are themselves taken up, subjects of the work itself
In any endeavor, in any field or pursuit, it is natural to be concerned with excellence, and excellence can be usually known by an appeal to a larger practice. Excellence in art differs from excellence in other areas of life; excellence in art serves as an example of how we might conduct ourselves, behave, imagine the world, and orient in it, but it is not itself judged by how it improves or hinders a particular human practice, as, say, medicine, law, or shoemaking might be. Where there is an “artistic” value attributed to these, it is usually because they are excellent in a way that cannot be explained by the practices of which they are a part. Experts in most fields are not concerned with their artistry, if by “artistry” we mean “artistic value,” since such artistry is removed from the patterns and habits of practice of which they are a part.
Criticism, though, refers to that expertise that cares about excellence in art—whether it is in the art of music, architecture, cuisine, literature, painting, or anything else. What is of special interest in excellence in art is that, unlike excellence in a particular human practice like law or medicine, it can be explained but not predicted or entirely generalized in a theory. A work of art begins in the realm of common (to a culture, time, place) human practices: what people ought to say or do, what they usually say or do, how they usually feel or think about or imagine the world. It begins in the realm of norms, which we can at least attempt to describe, even if our description can never be complete or infallible. But then, in a work of art, something interesting happens: something is said, imagined, or felt in a way that is extra-ordinary, that breaks from those norms, that exceeds the usual promises of human interaction. It is for critics to explain, describe, and notice how.
Criticism is difficult because there is no method for noticing, explaining, or describing, because the nature of the extra-ordinary in art is that it cannot be codified or theorized or generalized; to do so would be to make it something ordinary in a different way, establishing as it were a “superior order,” but an order, and hence a form of the ordinary, nonetheless. What is wonderful about art is not that it has no clear role in human practices and not that it has no consequence (it can inspire and evoke a range of feelings and actions and change how people see the world)—but that it surprises continually by the ways in which it is extraordinary. It is a reminder that even within the realm of our norms about what should happen and shouldn’t happen, there is nonetheless opportunity to be surprised by what can and might happen that is nonetheless right. (There is no appealing to “all epic poems must…”)
A work of art involves commitments to be one thing, to stand in certain relations to what people do or might or should do in certain situations; it involves promises to fulfill certain expectations that it establishes; it involves aspirations to be something more than we expect; and it can fulfill or disappoint those commitments, promises, and aspirations in many ways. It can be extraordinary in one way and not another; it can come up short in one place and perpetually surprise us in another; it must take risks, incur the possibility of being criticized, make trade-offs, and sacrifice one good for another; and criticism can ask how and why and whether these risks, trade-offs, and sacrifices were warranted. But above all, critics seek to account for that various, unexpected gap between the particular and the general.
Even though the “extraordinary” is resistant to theoretical elaboration, it is not adrift on a sea of particular instances. It can be guided by analysis of parts in relation to the whole; it can be guided by the comparison of instances that make and variously fulfill (or fail to fulfill) various commitments, promises, and aspirations; and it can yield principles that generalize sufficiently to gain purchase on what might be make for the extraordinary in quite a few, if not all, cases, or that might help articulate trade-offs, sacrifices, proportions, and the value of certain limits; finally, it can provide touchstones, passages or lines or entire texts that serve as examples by which to orient our thinking.
If the task of criticism is to see the work in itself as it really is, to use Matthew Arnold’s phrase, then it cannot shirk the apprehension of the extraordinary that is essential to what art aspires to be, and often, in surprising ways, is.
When you study works of literature in school, you are presented with lots of works that people have, for many reasons, argued to be extraordinary in some way. Criticism is vastly easier if you can see, without much effort, what makes a work extraordinary, but it is sometimes necessary to train ourselves to see what is ordinary and extraordinary in a work, and to take time to appreciate what a work commits to presenting or being, what it promises, and what it aspires to do. Sometimes that does involve acquaintance with particular conventions and genres, or knowledge about an author’s historical era and life, but it always also involves understanding of what parts of life and the world the work seeks to understand.
Most fundamentally, when it comes to literature, it involves an appreciation of language. The surprise of literature can be generated in many ways, but the surprise owes always to something happening in the words themselves—if only because they are the stuff from which literature is made. When we first read, we often read for the surprise of plot; it’s a lasting source of pleasure through life, and it shouldn’t be dismissed. But reading for what is extraordinary means reading for what might have been against what is; reading for how something exceeds what we might otherwise have found ordinary. This website presents an approach for how you can do so by attending to the words themselves, looking for what is most extraordinary in a work as a whole by fixing what is extraordinary about individual words.
Two questions are at the heart of criticism:
- What does this work (or passage or character) promise to be and aspire to be?
- How does this work fulfill those promises and aspirations, and how does it exceed them or fall short of them?
From these questions, corollary questions arise: What is the cost or limit of that promise or aspiration? How do other works fulfill or exceed similar promises or aspirations? How else might it have made good on its promise and aspirations? Where is the promise most realized or surprisingly exceeded? Where least?
The second question is the root of most analysis and argument, but it cannot properly be answered without the first, and often the most heated critical disagreements will turn on the first.
Samuel Johnson tells us that the task of criticism is to convert opinion into knowledge. Both of these questions are initially matters of opinion in so far as we must interpret a text’s promises and aspirations, and in so far as we must make the case that it fulfills them, exceeds them, or falls short; and because, on another level, we may be variously persuaded, or not persuaded, as to how it does so. Both of these questions have answers that can become knowledge in so far as we might not immediately recognize what a work is attempting or promising, because we might need to learn, and come to know, how it fulfills and promises them.
Matthew Arnold tells us that the task of criticism is to see the object in itself as it really is. Both of these questions aim at doing just that, since we cannot know what a work of literature is unless we ask what it promises and aspires to be, and how it fulfills those promises and aspirations; similarly, we cannot know who a person is unless we ask what they promise and aspire to be.
T.S. Eliot tells us that analysis and comparison are the chief tools of a critic, and analysis and comparison are essential if we are to answer these questions, since doing so involves knowing what kind of thing a work is in relation to other similar kinds, and in learning how variously different works might fulfill promises and aspirations, at the same time as it involves reading closely to see it on its own terms, understanding its distinct promises, aspirations, and fulfillments.
On this website, I propose a way of answering the second question especially, through carefully reading the language of a work. But to answer that question, we need also to have an answer to the first. Fortunately, it is often by reading a text carefully that we arrive at answers to both, almost at once.
Until second or third grade, most children are “learning to read.” After that point, educators say that children are “reading to learn.” When children are learning to read, they often read aloud and are read aloud to; we might say that they are hearing in order to read. When children start reading to learn, they sometimes lose what is a crucial dimension of reading, especially reading literature: “reading in order to hear.” Discerning which words are weird, and which are complex, and how they variously fit together in a passage or work depends first and foremost upon hearing the words, sometimes in one way, and often in several ways at once, recognizing the various ways of voicing that a particular phrasing encourages. We can only be led by language and attend carefully to the words on the page if we learn to hear, and if we read to hear.
One of the marks of good criticism is that it helps us become more attuned to the language. Whether we agree with its ultimate evaluation of a work of literature, or its final analysis, along the way, it brings us into renewed contact with the words so as to hear them more clearly for the occasion, feelings, and meanings they contain.
The aim of literary criticism is to make sense of the convergence of the ethical and the aesthetic in a work of art: where there is no convergence, there can be no criticism (there is no criticism of mountains and criticism of ways of life is often muddled by this sort criticism, becoming snobbery or bigotry). Put another way, the aim of criticism is to get within, and make sense of, the convergence of judgments about technique, design, and language (why a work is this way and another) and judgments about moral feeling (just what and how much is felt, and ought to be felt, in a particular situation).
“To better endure and enjoy life”: because literature communicates a rightness of feeling; the judgment of what it is right to feel about a situation and the judgment of what the rights (and wrongs) of the world feel like, embodied and active in the words themselves, what they are, what else they might have been, and how they are arranged. This rightness of feeling for and about the world, and for and about language (“moral feeling”), affords pleasure not because it is an escape from the world, but because it offers a haven, a vantage for apprehending, attacking, mocking, placing, redeeming, recasting what is right and fwrong, good and bad in life. The feat of literature, when it works, is to get the condition of judgment within the judgment itself; to get the conditions of the vantage, the pressures and perspective and place of the shelter, into the shelter itself.
What is truly felt about the circumstance?
What would be good to feel about the circumstance?
What is felt about the possibility of this or something being good, or about goodness itself?
What is felt about the possibility of this or something being true, or about truth itself?
The rightness of literature is a shelter from the world, not an escape from it—whether it transforms, places, attacks, mocks, redeems, or focuses life, it depends on a feeling for what is wrong and right with it (a moral feeling)—and that feeling for wrong and right is contained in the judgments of language: which words are chosen and how they are arranged.
Read for the current of moral feeling that flows from language, and the language that flows from moral feeling.
Judgment: language judged right by the criteria of the moral feeling for and of a circumstance of life.
Reading literature critically means arriving at, and returning to, principles that make sense of why an author’s judgement is right or wrong, good or bad, a success or a failure. Principles arise from the instances themselves, but stretch to other instances, and to the nature of judgment and a sense of what the world is like; but they need not be, and in fact cannot be, full-blown theories of judgment or life or language or literature. Principles resemble reasons, greater than the instance, but pertinent to its specific contours and exigencies; theories and systems are not reasons.
This picture of criticism is old-fashioned in some ways: misinterpreted, or carried out sloppily, it makes critics into arbiters of taste, uppers of thumbs, or mere opinion-peddlers. But as Samuel Johnson remarked, it is the function of criticism to turn opinion into knowledge; it is the conversion of opinion to knowledge, and not the cultivation of opinion, that makes a critic.
In schools nowadays, students are usually told to write interpretive analytical essays and not to defend opinions of texts. That is a sane approach for most students. But it goes too far in shirking the essential nub of the critical enterprise: getting inside of the reasons and principles, about life, language, and literature, that make sense of what authors are doing with language. Reading critically means interpreting only if interpretation means figuring out why a word fits into a text, in light of what it does and what it responds to, and is responsible for, in the world. It means asking why a particular word or arrangement of words is justified by the subject of the text and the text’s prior commitments. Put quite broadly, the philosopher F.H. Bradley said the trick of good literature involved “getting the conditions of judgment into the judgment itself.” A work of literature needs to provide, at least to some extent, the reasons it is one way and not another; teasing out those reasons is the crucial step in converting opinion into knowledge.
The trouble, the saying goes, is that everyone has reasons. So it is for authors and texts. There is always some reason for a word or arrangement of words, and it might be that, unknown to the author, there were many good reasons for not putting in those words or arrangement of words. Works of literature are not always well-designed. They might inadequately respond to what the world is like; they might forget their own commitments; they might neglect the implications of language; they might sacrifice too much or play it too safe; they might pander to an audience, or write only to fulfill expectations without sufficient regard for the subject at hand, sacrificing truth to titillation.
Teachers are in the difficult position of trying to choose texts that allow students the engage with, and confront, the intelligence of an author or text, while also recognizing that, historically, authors will have held beliefs or knowledge that makes their sense of the world very different from our own, just as we, reading backwards in time, have often lost a sense of what words mean and ourselves possess a skewed or superficial sense of what the world of the past would have seemed like for authors. There is no easy resolution to the problem.
Nonetheless, there is no need for students or teachers to shirk criticism. The safest path forward is to write on what seems most moving, or interesting, or true or good about a text, if it can be found; the second safest path is to write on what is most puzzling or strange, in the hopes that curiosity can sustain analysis, and that analysis will yield appreciation of some sort. Nobody needs to think everything in a text is good or true to think there is something good or right in a text; at the same time, we should build up our capacity for charitable reading and interpretation, making the effort to find something good or true.
I’ve said “good and true” quite a few times, and you might wonder how we can read for either: after all, ethical codes vary greatly over time and place, as do the basic set of facts about the world by which people orient themselves in place and time. Here, I think, is where it is most helpful to turn to a crucial insight of T.S. Eliot: that intelligence (which lives along both axes of goodness and truth) involves knowing “just what and how much people feel in any situation,” and then recognizing that feeling itself is governed by the “is” and the “ought.” It is not too much to ask that works of literature, from Gilgamesh to now, are true and good in terms of feeling, revealing in ways that are both persuasive and novel what feeling is like and also written with a sense of how people ought and ought not to feel in particular situations. One reason we can read Gilgamesh despite some very off-putting sexual politics is that the feelings of friendship, courage, pride, and fear of death are themselves so vivid in it. That does not mean that the cultural and historical matter of the poem is irrelevant; feelings cannot have meaning apart from history or culture; but the range and reality of feelings in a work of literature, and the depth and variety of experiences that give rise to feelings, are reasons to return to works of literature written in times and places very different from our own.
Talking about feelings does not allow us to avoid the difficult questions of historical interpretation: if a character shows pleasure in the suffering of another, must an author show some awareness (not didactic, or moralistic, but in the very “placement” of the character in the design of the work, or in the choice of words in the scene—the vehicles of judgment are more varied in literature than in judicial sentences) that this pleasure might be callous or even sadistic? It depends; what if this is a warrior living according to an honor code? Etc. Understanding how others judge the world to be and how others think the world ought to be is rarely simple.
The word “feelings” is also deceptive. It does not refer only to emotions, but it may include these. Grammatically, we may speaking of feeling an object, or having a feeling for something, or feeling courageous or generous, or feeling physically unwell. But the word grounds us somewhat, and it points in a few helpful directions: bodily feelings, moral feelings, feelings about a place, feelings about history, feelings about actions, feelings about desires, conflicts of feelings, social feelings, and more. All of this talk about “feeling” might repel a certain kind of reader, but that is, I think, because they do not want to wade through emotions; but as I hope is obvious, feelings are not limited to emotions. Thinking about feelings in literature might mean thinking about admiration, disgust, contempt, shame, jealousy, hope, temperance, courage—all of which are essential to how we conceive of action, history, and what we want out of life. People have feelings about what they do, why they do it, where and when they do it, and how they do it—not to mention feelings about the things that other people do; those feelings are inseparable from praise and blame, virtues and vices, politics and conflict. I’m not sure we can give a full account of life and action without talking about those feelings.
I started out discussing “the good” and “the true” and suggesting that reading critically involves asking what makes a text good or true. But what I’ve said suggests a further elaboration of the matter: writing analytically might start with an instinct that a text or author is most true and most good at a particular moment, but converting that opinion into knowledge involves asking why. And answering that “why” means often thinking about how texts and authors and characters have a sense of what feelings are true and what feelings are right in a particular occasion, and also how the truth and the good themselves are felt within texts, by characters, narrators, and authors. We can ask in other words, how a text places and reveals what is good and true in feelings and what is not; and also how a text apprehends, from the perspective of author and character, how something good and something true (or not good and not true) might feel. In the rightness of language, we should seek rightness of feeling and feeling for rightness.
Above all, we need to recognize that there is likely more than one good and more than one truth involved in life or literature at any moment, and that there is similarly more than one feeling alive in any experience. Critics need to remember this principle, and to seek out the ways in which literature itself reconciles, balances, and adjudicates between different goods and truths and feelings about what is good and true—often so as to suggest entirely new ways of feeling. Critics need to keep in mind William Empson’s remark that “life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis”: contradictions that must be felt and feelings that must be lived.
But however much we feel when we read, or about what we read, we do not start with feelings. We start, instead, with the words on the page, and it is the words on the page that are both the beginning and end of criticism. Each word potentially represents an act of judgment by an author: this word, rather than another; this order rather than another: these are decided, consciously or not, for reasons having to do with what is good and what is true, with a sense for what and how much is felt, sometimes at that exact moment, and sometimes elsewhere in the text.
On this website, I offer an approach to reading carefully so that we can tease out what words are doing, in terms of what a text is showing about the world and what the author and characters feel about the world. I call it “Word Expert.” But I call the site “Led by Language,” since “Word Expert” is a series of steps that helps you attend to the words on the page, with this larger goal: when we read, we want for the words to lead us somewhere, and we want to let ourselves be guided by them, but that means knowing how to get a feel for where they are going.
…….. …. ……..
In literature, language leads us somewhere we have not been before. Where does it lead? I think it is helpful to have two destinations in mind, quite opposed to one another, but somehow reconciled in the greatest works of literature. Sometimes, we will find that the language of a work leads us more easily to one destination rather than the other, depending on the work and perhaps our own style of thought, or even mood at the time.
On the one hand, it leads to an understanding of human goodness and its absence. Human goodness is always situational; it happens in a place, at a time, in response to pressures and contingencies. When we read literature carefully, we are often led to understand how a work of literature understands a variety of human conduct in a variety of circumstances, and also to see how literature itself is a form of conduct, written against the pressure of the circumstance it is representing. Because literature often leads to some understanding of human goodness, critics sometimes sound like moralists when they write about it.
On the other hand, it leads us to the precipice of an abyss: it allows us to see something that cannot be measured, contained, assessed, or ordered by its language: it recognizes something beyond itself, and beyond our normal sense of things. Sometimes, we glimpse whatever it is in a word; sometimes it is the topic of the text. Because literature can lead to the edge of abyss, or seem to be suspended over an abyss, critics sometimes sound like philosophers (especially existential philosophers) when writing about it.
But language, rather than virtue or the abyss, is the surest guide when we read literature. For one, it’s right there on the page, something we can pick up, examine, and appreciate with solid inquiry and study. We also use it all the time; it is familiar to us in a way that one author’s idea of a virtue or one author’s vision of an abyss might not be. More generally, it is crucial that we do attend to language when we write about literature because in the language of a text, its form and design and selection, the tension between human goodness and the threat of the abyss is resolved: in the any work of literature worth our study, the language that apprehends human goodness (or its absence) also gives a glimpse of the abyss, and vice-versa. Language allows for us to judge and know what actions are good and why, and language also pushes us into a free-fall where meanings cannot be ultimately decided, where change is constant, and where our understanding falters.
We let language lead when we ask: “Did you see that thing that the author is doing with words?” There is no guide to saying what about language in a text will seem most interesting and worth pursuing; but whatever you notice, you need to work out why that way of writing is alive to, and understands, the world differently from, and more than, another way of writing.
To let language lead, you need to read carefully, trusting your instincts, and you need to explain how a word is appropriate for (true and sensitive to) the subject matter or occasion: how it reflects it, illuminates it, comments on it, and animates it in a way that is intelligent and surprising (true and new).
W.H. Auden, in an essay in The Dyer’s Hand, suggests that we ought to ask of any poet, “What is their conception of the good life?” and “What is their conception of the good place?” When I was young, this caught my mind, and seemed somehow right—but also unsatisfying. The trouble is that so positive a vision is not to be found in many great poets. I do not doubt, however, that Auden was guided by the questions, which perhaps limit him as a critic. Better to ask in practice and in principle, how a work of literature understands what it means to act well, in mind and deed. In other words, criticism aspires to understand how a work of literature understands apprehends virtue (in its broadest sense), and its conditions of failure and success. Hence the greatest critics are, sometimes occasionally, sometimes persistently, moralists, achieving insight into the sense of goodness that seizes and is seized by poems, novels, dramas, and their creators. For some critics, that insight is historical (Empson on Coleridge), whereas for others it is political (Hazlitt on power in Coriolanus); to read these critics is to come to better understand what certain works of literature themselves bring to light, and set in place. For such critics, the discussion of technique, of form, of verbal complexity, is aimed at gaining insight into a work’s insight into virtuous striving, or into what vitiates its capacity for such insight. No account of the greatest critics can be without recognizing that this is what they aspire to communicate. More practically, the virtues, as cumbersome and clumsy as they might be, afford a way to frame the appreciation and analysis of the judgment of language everywhere embodied in a work’s form. As a teacher, such a framing has special potential, especially if the question shifts away from asking, impossibly, how we are to judge a particular character or action, and instead towards what the work or author understands about that particular character or action’s goodness. In defense of the former, it at least moves students towards articulating an understanding of virtues; but it is misplaced in its aim; the latter, the question of how the author or work understand, requires an engagement with the language of a work, its form and techniques and intelligence.
What does this look like in practice? It does not mean forcing literature to become a celebration of virtue; but it does mean appreciating, for instance, that Swinburne’s chorus “When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces” involves a recognition of the indifferent violence of regeneration and the pain it demands. It is not a poem about virtue; but it checks its excitement at violence and violation with an apprehension of grief and pain, and in that it represents an exercise of a self-judgment; the excitement provides the ground upon which Swinburne tempers his imagination.
I know some who would deride such criticism as moralistic, but I don’t think that ultimately there is valuing a work of literature without some appeal to a language of the ethical exercise of judgment. As a starting point, a blunt list of virtues may provide the handles one needs: to praise Whitman’s humility, for instance, is to recognize that, for all of his egoism, his capacious sense of self accommodates a self-effacing difference, so that others remain distinctly that, and his acts of identification with the demos is not a mirroring or digestion; he is instead transformed; the poetry is instructive of democratic sympathy. Or take Robert Lowell’s Life Studies which represent a potentially solipsistic expression, but which instead become an expression of remarkable compassion for those in his past, those he knew when he was too young to feel for or with their circumstances—and yet it is a compassion that refuses to reconstruct beyond the limits of memory, that that must realize itself, attach itself, by way of the glimpses of furniture, sounds, fleeting afternoons and guessed-at whispers, that remain available in memory.
Donne is an especially difficult case here–yet his deep mistrust, his skepticism, sometimes cynicism, towards the world, arise out of his sense that he has a profound capacity for faith, and a magnanimity towards the world that affords him independence from it.
At the core of criticism–an account of selfhood, directly or indirectly, as one with language–and so concepts of virtues, of desire, of will, of memory are essential to what a work of literature (and art) is and does.
…. …………………. ……… ..
Criticism that helps us to see how a work involves an apprehension of how, as well as what, we apprehend; imagination of how, as well as what, we imagine; feeling about how, as well as what, we feel; judgment of how, as well as what, we judge—but always how we do so, in relation to a case, a situation, a circumstance and place. Criticism makes us aware of a work’s self-awareness—it persuades us of such self-awareness.
Critics notice words.
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.
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.
Alternatively, we can begin with a description–something in the text is one way rather than another–or else with technique or form, but they all hinge on the matter of judgment and why it is one way and not another.
—– ———— ——
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.
……. … ..
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.
—– — –
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.
. . .
Jan 1, 2022:
Everyone carries the abyss; the awareness of nothingness. For a non-Believer, the only approximation of Faith is a bold interpretation of the relationship between the nothingness that sustains, grounds, and circumscribes being, and that is reconciled with being in “becoming.” The “becoming” that makes the world impermanent, and that makes what we know about and experience as life possible. The bold interpretation is that the relationship of the abyss–nothingness, negation—towards existence is itself love: for Believers, it is a loving relationship, implying an entity and actor. I do not want to go that far. Instead, the fact of existence over and above nothingness, the affirmation of being against negation, by negation, is what love is—and we can go further: love is not just existence propped up by nothingness, but the relationship of being and nothingness, their reconciliation, in “becoming.” My suggestion is that we take the relationship of being and nothingness, in becoming, as paradigmatic of love, so that when we love one another, and love existence, we are, if we are honest, asked to love becoming and the nothingness that sustains it. That is not just a version of love, but love at its most unconditional, a continued strengthening of and by an absolute other, meeting one another in a becoming that can never be fixed in place or form.
—— —- ————-
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.
. ….. ……..
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.
. …. …….
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.
. . . .
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.
– – – –
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.
– – – –
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).
. . . . . .
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.