Sunday, April 12, 2009

Doctrine suspended in the void

In the latest Weekly Standard, Edward Short begins a review of Geoffrey Hill’s Collected Critical Writings by quoting from Henry James:

The critical sense is so far from frequent that it is absolutely rare, and the possession of the cluster of qualities that minister to it is one of the highest distinctions. It is a gift inestimably precious and beautiful; therefore, so far from thinking that it passes overmuch from hand to hand, one knows that one has only to stand by the counter an hour to see that business is done with baser coin. We have too many schoolmasters; yet not only do I not question in literature the high utility of criticism, but I should be tempted to say that the part it plays may be the supremely beneficent one when it proceeds from deep sources, from the efficient combination of experience and perception. In this light one sees the critic as the real helper of the artist, a torch-bearing outrider, the interpreter, the brother.Although Short does not identify the source, this passage comes from James’s essay “The Science of Criticism” originally published in the New Review in May 1891 and reprinted in book form two years later in Essays in London and Elsewhere. (The Library of America includes it in its volume of James’s criticism on American and English writers.)

James begins the essay by observing that, despite an affluence of periodical criticism in his day, it was curiously disconnected from the literature under review. Barren of examples and illustrations, a stranger to “literary conduct,” much criticism was characterized by a “deluge of doctrine suspended in the void”—not unlike many pronouncements on criticism one hundred years and more later. James marveled that literature was able to resist “such a periodicity of platitude and irrelevance,” and worried that it would not long be able to, “speedily going down beneath it.” How will anyone know if literature goes under? The signs will be obvious—“the failure of distinction, the failure of style, the failure of knowledge, the failure of thought.”

With the disappearance of many American newspapers’ book pages, the threat would seem to have disappeared too. But not so fast. James was concerned lest “the diffusion of penmanship and opportunity” prove fatal to literature. If book pages are disappearing, programs in creative writing are multiplying. As I observed in the Afterword to the new edition of The Elephants Teach, “the total number of degree-granting programs” in the U.S. has climbed to “well over three hundred.” In his scholarly study published earlier this month, Mark McGurl argues that “the rise of the creative writing program stands as the most important event in postwar American literary history”; he calls the era in American fiction The Program Era. The “multiplication of endowments for chatter” troubled James in his day. In our day, different institutions are endowed, and the multiplication increases.

The threat remains. Literature is highly susceptible to demoralization, and “nothing is better calculated than irresponsible pedagogy to make it close its ears and lips.” Since creative writing has relieved it of the responsibility for tutoring writers, criticism has become an even more unreliable pedagogue. Critics seem no longer willing to recognize that many books have “nothing to say to the critical sense, that they do not belong to literature, and that the possession of a critical sense is exactly what makes it impossible to read them and dreary to discuss them—places them, as a part of the critical experience, out of the question.” As I have said so many times that I have become a bore on the subject, literature is a title which is bestowed by critics, and if they fail to perform their duty, literature becomes a tear in the ocean of books. This is the sense in which Frank Wilson hits the target when he says that “any accurate and precise description of anything is necessarily implicitly evaluative.” Although descriptive utterances may be logically distinguishable from evaluative utterances, a critic must admit that some books are just too dreary to describe. Its evaluative commitment, its acceptance of the kingmaker’s role, is what distinguishes criticism from irresponsible pedagogy. Without Samuel there is neither Saul nor David.

And it is at this point in the argument that the passage quoted by Short (reproduced above) appears. The critical sense is not widely distributed—at least not as widely distributed as English departments across the land. The critic’s function is “sacrificial”; indeed, the critic sacrifices himself to the founding of literature. “To lend himself, to project himself and steep himself, to feel and feel till he understands, and to understand so well that he can say, to have perception at the pitch of passion and expression as embracing as the air, to be infinitely curious and incorrigibly patient”—these are the self-sacrificing qualities of a critic. That they are unusual goes without saying. To be instead a servant of doctrine, to know in advance what any literary text will say, to decide what to read on the basis of irrelevant criteria like authors’ race and sex, to intone magisterially about “literature as a whole” and then to restrict it to only those who deliver an “aesthetic experience”—these are among the ways in which schoolmasters, administering budgets and alloting classroom space and angling for a promotion, pretend to the world that they are critics. They are not. They are bureaucrats of literature. They may “continue to talk about it long after it has bored itself to death,” and they give every appearance of making sure that their descendants will hear about it in this fashion, but they will “acquiesce in its extinction.”


Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

How sad!
that just ANYONE should be allowed to mercilessly take pen to paper and call himself a critic, a gatekeeper, a TEACHER.

I'm mocking a bit, but I have to agree. I surely wouldn't (didn't!) want to learn from any of these "bureaucrats of literature" as you've described them, but it happens.

What can account for there not being a more collective critical consciousness? Sure, there are literary movements which echo themselves in criticism... but does criticism have an agenda independent of the literature to which it relates?

Should there be a code of critical conduct? Instead of sovereign schools of thought, several strains of "doctrine suspended in the void”?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions. or even if they're the right questions to ask.