The humanist critic of literature

Wall Street Journal: Barton Swaim, Toward a Theory of Lit-Crit (July 21, 2014):

Lit CritAbout a year into my graduate education in English literature, I began to have the vague impression that something wasn’t right. Both my peers and most of the faculty, I felt, valued literature at once too highly and not at all. No one seemed to care very much if the works they examined were any good: What mattered wasn’t the works themselves but the grand political or philosophical points you could draw from them. Yet nearly everyone assumed that fiction and poetry were properly studied in the almost scientific way of modern scholarship—with jargon only practitioners understand, footnote-laden monographs and seminars devoted to an ever-multiplying array of subdisciplines. The works were irrelevant but somehow worthy of being analyzed endlessly.

What I saw dimly was the domination of capital-T Theory. Since the 1960s, the academic study of literature had fallen under the influence of neo-Marxist social theorists associated with the Frankfurt School, chiefly Theodore Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse. The point of Literary Theory isn’t so much to interpret a literary work, and certainly not to judge its merits, but to reveal the ways in which the work either undermines or reinforces dominant social and political values. So for instance Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” isn’t about moral anarchy in the absence of external constraints; indeed it doesn’t matter what it’s “about.” Instead the book illustrates the degree to which Western European society and the author’s own worldview are premised on racism.

James Seaton, in his short but deeply perceptive book “Literary Criticism From Plato to Postmodernism,” contends that the theorists who dominate literature departments can trace their intellectual heritage to a surprising source: Plato. This is surprising because literary theorists usually consider Plato the father of “logocentrism”—supposedly a “Western” tendency to see words as fixed to unchanging ideals rather than as arbitrary symbols. Yet Mr. Seaton argues that the academics who dominate literature departments today—disciples of a dizzying array of “postmodernist” philosophies, from New Historicism to feminist theory—are Platonists to the core. Plato sought to align human life and government strictly to the ideals of reason and justice; postmodern theorists, writes Mr. Seaton, “seek a society in which theoretical reason will rule, unconstrained by the customs or ‘prejudices’ of the past conveyed so seductively by novels, plays, and poems.”

Plato actually expressed two contradictory views of imaginative writing, as Mr. Seaton explains. The Plato of “The Republic” distrusted poets because, of course, they lied. Homer said things happened that didn’t happen. The Plato of the “Symposium,” by contrast, allowed that poets can be and often are inspired by the gods. What else can explain their seemingly magical power to delight and inveigle? This idea was picked up by the Neoplatonists, particularly the third-century Greek philosopher Plotinus, and much later was employed by Philip Sidney (1554-1586) and other Renaissance writers to defend poetry on the grounds that it offered some form of metaphysical knowledge. In more indirect ways, the Romantic poets of the 19th century ( Wordsworth and Shelley especially) and the more strident proponents of literary modernism ( Pound, Joyce, Woolf ) embraced the notion that imaginative writing could get us closer to some higher or truer reality.

But here’s the fascinating part of Mr. Seaton’s argument: He suggests that today’s literary theorists combine the two strains of Platonism into one. For theorists, in other words, literary works themselves amount to so much meaningless “discourse” (Plato of “The Republic”); it’s only when those works are interpreted by literary theorists that they provide a form of higher knowledge (the more “Romantic” Plato). Theory is the higher reality, then, and theorists—conveniently enough—are our priests.

The second half of Mr. Seaton’s book deals with what he calls the “humanistic alternative” of Aristotle, who rejected Plato’s thought on poetry. In the “Poetics,” Aristotle formulated what proved to be immensely influential definitions of poetic devices, but “the significance of the ‘Poetics’ for the humanistic tradition,” writes Mr. Seaton, “does not derive from the universal applicability of the ‘rules’ it supposedly establishes but rather in the approach to literature it exemplifies.” That humanistic approach, he argues, “turns to works of literature for insight into human life, not for authoritative knowledge about ultimate reality.”

The humanist critic, in other words, takes literature for what it is: neither divine revelation nor an intrinsically worthless “text” that merely expresses cultural biases or furthers oppressive social arrangements. The humanist critic begins with the literary work, not with political or philosophical views; he doesn’t mistake art for life or aesthetic criteria for political ones; and he explains to literate, engaged people (not merely to specialists) how important works of literature illuminate moral and political questions. Mr. Seaton examines the criticism of (among others) Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, Henry James, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson and Cleanth Brooks—in each case distinguishing what these great critics did with poems and books from what their academic successors do with them now.

Mr. Seaton, a professor of literature at Michigan State, insists that humanistic criticism is far from dead. It survives, he writes, “in journals of opinion from a variety of political viewpoints . . . journals such as The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, The Claremont Review of Books, National Review, and The Nation.” Not one of these journals is published or edited on a university campus—a fact that goes to the heart of Mr. Seaton’s eloquent complaint.


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