Until the time of the modernist period of English literature, literary criticism was a “literary” activity, with leading (call them policy) documents written by the leaders of the literary movements. We know how from Dryden and Pope and Johnson to Wordsworth and Coleridge and Keats to Arnold and Rossetti and Swinburne to Eliot and Auden and Spender, English poetics was theorised by the leading English poets.
But in the post-modern period there is no such thing as literary theory, nor any of the dominant theoretic documents of today’s activity of criticism has come from any man-of-letters. It is mostly the philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, linguists, etc., who have propounded all kinds of dismantling orders, which are being applied, by their followers, in the field of literature. Today, the activity called “theory,” is related to, not any particular subject, but to all subjects. No wonder the literary criticism today has become cultural studies, feminism, postcolonialism, etc., which use literary texts for making political, sociological, or psychological case studies. As Jonathan Culler has attempted to explain the nature of THEORY:
Theory in literary studies is not an account of the nature of literature or methods for its study…. It is a body of thinking and writing whose limits are exceedingly hard to define….a new kind of writing has developed which is neither the evaluation of the relative merits of literary productions, nor intellectual history, nor moral philosophy, nor social prophesy, but all of these mingled together in a new genre. The most convenient designation of this miscellaneous genre is simply the nickname theory, which has come to designate works that succeed in challenging and reorienting thinking in fields other than those to which they apparently belong. This is the simplest explanation of what makes something count as theory. Works regarded as theory have effects beyond their original field.
Thus, the main effect of theory is disputing all that we have been considering “common sense.” It questions all the concepts and beliefs we have held about literature, author, reader, text, meaning, etc. It questions as well the non-literary concepts of philosophy, sociology, linguistics, etc. Theory challenges the conception of the author’s intention, that the meaning of work or speaker is what he “had in mind.” It also challenges that literature is a representation of “life”, whose truth is outside of itself, in history, or biography, etc. It further challenges the very notion of reality as something present at a given moment. In this all-round critique of common sense, theory insists that all that passes in the name of natural or essential or universal is nothing but a construction of social practices, a production of a certain discourse. Broadly, Culler makes the following four points to sum up the activity called theory:
a. It is interdisciplinary, always deriving ideas or leaving effects outside an original discipline.
b. It is analytical and speculative, always working out what is involved or implied in a text, or language, or meaning, or subject, etc.
c. It is a critique of common sense, always questioning whatever is considered a given or natural or essential or universal.
d. It is thinking about thought, always enquiring into categories and concepts we use in making sense of things, such as what is woman or man or meaning or text, etc. (Culler, p. 15)
Critics like Terry Eagleton (a well known British Marxist critic) may find in theory an expression of democratic impulse, and a liberation “from the stranglehold of a civilized sensibility,” the fact of the matter is that it has seriously subverted the value of literature in various ways, such as the following:
1. It has made criticism a jargon-ridden writing, inaccessible to the common reader. As such, it is anti-democratic.
2. It has reduced literature to the status of a speech, any speech, political, pornographic, stray writing, etc. As such, it deprives art and literature of their humane and ennobling effect.
3. It has reduced literary criticism to dividing people into regions, races, tribes, cultures, colonizers, colonized, etc. As such, it is divisive, not unifying.
4. It has also made criticism a negative activity, which is meant to trace faultlines, lapses, absences, what the text does not say or has failed to say.
Thus, theory has given birth to a set of approaches in criticism, which transforms the activity of understanding, appreciating, and evaluating a literary work into (largely) an activity of self-reflection. It tends to marginalize artists and their art-works.
THEORY AND ITS IMPLICATIONS
Reading through the vast variety of contemporary critical theories and textual interpretations under the various brand names, such as structuralism and post-structuralism, deconstruction and new historicism, cultural studies and feminism, minority discourse and post-colonialism, one is left wondering where the discipline of literary criticism has arrived in our time. The alien idioms one encounters, the gigantic critical apparatuses one confronts, the mind-boggling systems one has to comprehend, all quickly combine to create a climate utterly discomforting, making one unstable even for a ‘temporary stay against confusion.’
Terrorized by the teasing games of the dreadful discourses, the common reader instinctively terminates his journey through the dense forestry and returns to his own common-sense reading of the literary works. Of course, after his abortive journey through the verbal forest he does not return the same man; he comes back sadder’ but not wiser. What leaves him completely nonplussed are the oracular declarations, such as the ‘death of God’, the ‘death of the author’, the ‘death of the subject’, etc. Mortally afraid of encountering more of such declarations, he decides never to seek any critical company for his future journeys into the ‘cities of words.’
In such a situation it has become imperative for all those who value literature and literary criticism as instruments of education, essential for preserving and promoting the humanity of human societies, to understand and analyse the factors responsible for effecting this unprecedented change in the nature of literary criticism in our time. Until the end of the nineteenth century literary criticism had remained committed to elucidating for the common reader the social and moral significance of literary works, and was always written in a literary style as readable as literature itself. Note, for example, the following from S.T. Coleridge:
The characters of the dramatis personae, like those in real life, are to be inferred by the reader—they are not told to him. And it is well worth remarking that Shakespeare’s characters, like those in real life, are very commonly misunderstood, and almost always understood by different persons in different ways. The causes are the same in either case. If you take only what the friends of the character say, you may be deceived, and still more so, if that which his enemies say; nay, even the character himself sees himself through the medium of his character, and not exactly as he is. Take all together, not omitting a shrewd hint from the clown or the fool, and perhaps your impression will be right; and you may know whether you have in fact discovered the poet’s own idea, by all the speeches receiving light from it, and attesting its reality by reflecting it.
The very first thing one notices here is the use of an idiom readily available to the common reader. One also notices that the analogy used for explaining the critical method is taken from everyday human dealings, which implies that literature is a representation of life. One notices, too, how in a very simple manner the issue of the author’s intention has been explained, which makes clear that it is available within the text itself, and that one does not need to look for it anywhere else, including the author as a historical personage.
A drastic change in the nature of criticism began to become noticeable in the early years of the twentieth century. Those who brought about this change include I.A. Richards, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and the New Critics. With them literary criticism changed from art to science. Perhaps it had to change with the increasing influence of science in the modern age. As W.T. Stace has observed, ‘The positive stage is the stage of science which, when fully attained, abolishes both metaphysics and theology. In the golden age of the future which the triumph of science is to usher in, nothing will be considered knowledge unless it is science.’ Read, for example, the following from Ezra Pound: ‘The Proper METHOD for studying poetry and good letters is the method of contemporary biologists, that is, careful first-hand examination of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one “slide” or specimen with another.” Thus was adopted by Pound, as well as by those ‘new’ poets and critics who faithfully followed the dictates of this poet’s poet and the critic’s critic, the method of science in poetry and criticism. A similar thrust in the direction of science was given by I.A. Richards, who in his Science and Poetry pleaded, once again, for the scientific method of analyzing the working of the poem as well as the poet’s mind. Note, for example, the following:
To understand what an interest is we should picture the mind as a system of very delicately poised balances, a system which so long as we are in health is constantly growing. Every situation we come into disturbs some of these balances to some degree. The ways in which they swing back to a new equipoise are the impulses with which we respond to the situation. And the chief balances in the system are our chief interests. Suppose that we carry a magnetic compass about in the neighbourhood of power magnets…. Suppose that instead of a single compass we carry an arrangement of many magnetic needles, large and small, swing so that they influence one another…
The mind is not unlike such a system if we imagine it to be incredibly complex. The needles are our interests….
Thus, from Pound’s scientific ‘method’ we move to Richard’s scientific ‘system.’ In the convention of criticism from Aristotle to Arnold, there used to be approaches to literature based on the social and ethical goals of human society. They considered literature as an instrument of education. Now with the High Modernists it got reduced to the status of the material productions of science and industry. The most influential of these high priests of scientism, T.S. Eliot, carried this task with greater force than even Pound and Richards. Note, for instance, the following:
There remains to define this process of depersonalization and its relation to the sense of tradition. It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I shall, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.
Here the poet’s mind becomes the gas chamber in which various experiences combine like different chemicals to form a new compound. The chemical reaction is used to explain the process of composition of a poem or any other literary text. No doubt, this conversion of literary criticism into a study of systems and structures, principles and processes, involved in the making of literature, is effected under the express influence of science. In the same vein, the New Critics, namely John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, W.K. Wimsatt, Monroe Beardsley, and William Emerson, viewed a poem as a structure of words, reducing the function of criticism to explicating the functioning of various verbal devices such as metaphor, ambiguity, paradox, irony, image, etc., in the working of the structure called poem. In this New Critical effort, while literature changed from being one of the beautiful arts into one of the functional sciences, literary criticism changed from being an educational source into a scientific method.
In its attempt to introduce scientism in literature and literary criticism, the modernist criticism in the early twentieth century also made the author invisible, for like the filament of platinum he does not go into the compound called poem; he just stays behind. It also made the business of criticism a specialist’s job. It became inaccessible to the common reader who would not have the benefit of knowing various sciences and their principles and processes, systems and structures. The very language of literary criticism acquired a special ring, becoming far removed from the language of everyday conversation. The macro commentaries of earlier criticism were replaced by the micro explications of verbal devices used in the making of a poem. The writing called criticism became arduous. W.B. Yeats, who called himself one ‘the last romantics’, soon realized this arduousness of modern poetry and of modern criticism. In a letter to Dorothy Wellesley, he separated himself from the high modernists:
The difficult work which is being written everywhere now has the substance of philosophy and is a delight to the poet with his professional pattern; but it is not your road or mine & ours is the main road, the road of naturalness and swiftness and we have thirty centuries upon our side. We alone can think like a wise man, yet express ourselves like the common people. These new men are goldsmiths working with a glass screwed into one eye, whereas we stride ahead of the crowd, its swordsmen, its jugglers, looking to right and left. ‘To right and left’ by which I mean what we need like Milton, Shakespeare, Shelley, vast sentiments, generalizations supported by tradition.
Yeats is obviously drawing a contrast between the popular literary writers and the writers as specialist. We know how the writings of Eliot and Pound, Joyce and Woolf, became special readings, based as they were on philosophies and theories drawn from extra-literary sources. We also know how the critical writings of the New Critics acquired the nature of scientific investigations, seeking relations between the parts and the whole, the components and the structure, modelled on the functioning of a chemical process or biological system. Thus, literary criticism became one of the specialities in the corporation of knowledge disciplines.
The New Critics also changed the nature of literary criticism from a moral source of life to an amoral tool of investigation. Wimsatt and Beardsley came out with their famous (or notorious?) articles on ‘intentional fallacy’ and ‘affective fallacy’, with explicit implication of disinfecting literary criticism of moral as well as social significance. Like any physical or biological phenomenon, like any chemical or industrial process, a literary work came to be viewed as only a product of words. Naturally, then, the nature of literary criticism also became amoral, like any discipline of science, having nothing to do beyond the functions of various parts, or the workings of various structures or systems. While the ‘intentional fallacy’ took away the living voice of the author, the ‘affective fallacy’ took away the living response of the reader. Both reiterated the scientific study of literature, restricting its activity to the explication of verbal devices, their interrelational functions, and their functions in relation to the working of the structure of which they are internal components.
The Modernists paved the way for the Post-Modernists, who carried further the activity of making literary criticism a super-speciality, subjecting it to scientific empiricism. While ‘invisibility’ of the author was pushed further to declare the ‘death of the author’, the ‘intentional fallacy’ gave way to the ‘reader-oriented theories’. The language of the super-speciality made literary criticism far, far removed from the access of the common reader. Even those in the business of teaching literature were forced to choose their micro areas of specialization, for it was impossible for any individual scholar to keep pace with the fast developing specialities in all the areas. In an era of mass production ushered in by multinationals, literary theories could not have remained otherwise. There came in the literary market numerous brand products of the Post-Modern multinationals. Read, for example, the following from Roland Barthes to have a feel of the special language evolved by one such brand:
In an author’s lexicon, will there not always be a word-as-mana, a word whose ardent, complex, ineffable, a somehow sacred signification gives the illusion that by this word one might answer for everything? Such a word is neither eccentric nor central; it is motionless and carried, floating, never pigeonholed, always atopic (escaping any topic), at once remainder and supplement, a signifier taking up the place of every signified. The word has gradually appeared in his work; at first it was masked by the instance of Truth (that of history), then by that of validity (that of systems and structures); now it blossoms, it flourishes, this word-as-mana is the work ‘body.’
One can add to this sample a small list of words to show how incomprehensible the language of criticism has become in our time. We frequently come across today in the writings of the Post-Modernist critics words such as dialogic, discourse, enthymeme, exotopy, heteroglossia; agonaporia, difference, deconstruction, grammatology, logo-centrism, phallogocentrism; genotext, phenotext, multivalent, slippage, dispositif, episteme; androcentric, androgyny, biocriticism, biologism, gynocritic, pornoglossia, sexism; actualization, cratylism, idiolect, lang, parole, paradigm, diaspora; fetishism, flaneur, homology, ideologeme, etc., etc. Specialism forces the scholars to evolve their special languages known only to those who have acquired the required efficiency in the super speciality. The special voices cannot co-exist in any common space. They must perforce remain alien to each other, each becoming a code communication, leaving no scope for general conversation.
Another bane of scientific spirit, notwithstanding its various virtues, is that, ultimately, it leads to the dehumanization of the human material. One could trace the course of scientific spirit from its early demystification of the universe to later despiritualization of society to further mechanization of human life to, finally, dehumanization of mankind. Literature and literary criticism have always opposed science on this very ground, fighting all along the fast increasing forces of science and technology, industry and commerce. They have always stood for the preservation and promotion of humanism across national boundaries, racial reservations, or cultural constraints. It is a sad phenomenon today that the Post-Modernist critical approaches have adopted the scientific spirit of enquiry, making a casualty of the human concerns to which literature and literary criticism have always been closely related. The manner in which some of the brand products of Post-Modernism have chosen to champion the cultural, ethnic, or genderic causes, has in fact made the remedy worse than the disease. In the name of voicing the concerns of the hitherto repressed, colonized, marginalized, etc., discourses have been developed based solely on the differentiating features of ‘cultural’, ‘ethnic’ or ‘genderic’ life, promoting a new form of tribalism. In these discourses, mankind is viewed as an aggregation of cultural islands, suspicious of each other, clashing on the ‘darkling plain’, accusing each other of having encroached upon their special rights. One is reminded of Plato’s caves inhabited by tribes with horizons of the mind measuring the narrow holes of their respective caves, utterly unable to comprehend the open universe.
If literature and literary criticism are to perform their destined and true function, then they will have to return to the original path of the humanities, leaving the adopted path of sciences (including social sciences) which have deflected them from their prime duty to mankind. Today, what have become more important for criticism are, not the human concerns, but the purely non-human enquiries into the nature of things—a study of principles and processes, systems and structures. As for human concerns, they are conceived, if at all, only in terms of narrow, sectarian rights of groups divided by all sorts of ‘spaces.’ If we look at the titles of leading books and articles in the field of criticism today, the nature it has acquired, adopted, and imbibed becomes quite clear. The direction of its drift with the dominant current of science and technology becomes quite apparent. Here is a sample list of some of the titles from the vast verbal forest that has grown over the years. The Semiotic Challenge (Roland Barthes), Of Grammatology (Jacques Derrida), Writing and Difference (Derrida), The Theory of Semiotics (Umberto Eco), The Archaeology of Knowledge (Michael Foucault), What is an Author? (Foucault), Logic and Conversation (H.P. Grice), Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics (Roman Jakobson), A Theory of Literary Production (Pierre Macherey), The System and the Speaking Subject (Julia Kristeva), The Theory of Reading (David Morse), Objectivity, Relativism and Truth (Richard Rorty), The Theory of Reading (Frank Gloversmity), Meaning and Truth in the Arts (John Harpers), etc., etc. This list shows how criticism in our time has turned heavily theoretical and, finally, philosophical, focusing on either theorizing about how meaning is produced, or enquiring into the meaning of meaning, working of language, or the behaviour of words. In sum, the nature of criticism has acquired the character of science in all respects, turning away from the humanities, and has become a philosophico-scientific discipline called theory, which mixes literature with non-literary writings and the pseudo-literary films or journalism, and confines itself to the study of sociological behaviour of literary texts, their political overtones, their psychological suggestions, their anthropological patterns, their historical narrations, their linguistic structures, etc. The Post-Modernist criticism has done to literature what science had done to life; it has demystified its creation, despiritualized its contents, and dehumanized its interpretation.
Criticism today has been taken over by the disciplines of philosophy and psychology, sociology and anthropology, entirely changing the parameters of reading literary works. We no longer look for aesthetic or moral grounds for the appreciation of an art work. We look for the sub-texts and sub-structures, for faultlines and fictographs, using the apparatus borrowed from one of the disciplines just mentioned. The reason why this has happened is convincingly stated by Northrop Frye in the following:
It is clear that the absence of systematic criticism has created a power vacuum, and all the neighbouring disciplines have moved in hence the prominence of Archimedes fallacy…the notion that if we plant our feet solidly enough in Christian or democratic or Marxist values we shall be able to lift the whole of criticism at once with a dialectic crowbar. But if the varied interests of critics could be related to a central expanding pattern of systematic comprehension, this undertow would disappear, and they would be seen as converging on criticism instead of running away from it.
Since Frye made this observation in 1957 much water has flown through the Thames. The critical activity has changed beyond recognition. All aspects of a literary work are talked about in the name of criticism except the aspect of its humanity. What we have, in fact, is not literary criticism but only critical attitude drawn from various disciplines that have claimed the vacancy the failure of criticism has created.
No doubt, the discussion of art, particularly literature, cannot confine itself to the formal aspect of art considered in utter isolation. It must consider as well the participation of the literary work in the human vision of the goal of social effort, “the idea of complete and classless civilization. This idea of complete civilization is also the implicit moral standard to which ethical criticism always refers, something very different from any system of morals.’ Unfortunately, the current craze in criticism for the idea of ‘pluralism’ and ‘amoralism’ has left the critical effort devoid of all moral and humane concerns. Its ‘grand flourish of negativised rhetoric’, comprising such impressive keywords as ‘discontinuity, disruption, dislocation, decentring, indeterminacy, and antitotalization’, does hypnotise some intellectuals, but it leaves highly dissatisfied the steady explorer of ultimate meanings in literature as well as life. If pluralism means an assembly of mass individual or group opinions, if questioning means challenging one and all who have attained any respectability in society, then one might compare the Post-Modernist critical effort to a jungle of high-pitched voices raised in closed corridors. The goal of criticism must remain, as Frye insists: ‘…the ability to look at contemporary social values with the detachment of one who is able to compare them in some degree with the infinite vision of possibilities presented by culture. One who possesses such a standard of transvaluation is in a state of intellectual freedom.’’
The current critical effort refuses to decide upon any goal of literature or literary criticism beyond the contingent. It is high time that resistance was put up to the confusing critical cries of our time, paving the way for the restoration of the every-abiding goal of literature and literary criticism.