The Vices of Literary Criticism

George A. Wells

This article is an online-only bonus that did not appear in the print edition of Free Inquiry.

In my recent review of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery—Thomas L. Brodie’s book on how the New Testament came to be written—I noted that Brodie admitted that he owed his insights in part to “recent literary studies” (FI, April/May 2013). As I found his insights to be unduly fanciful, I suggested that this may well be to some extent due to the fanciful nature of much modern literary criticism. Of course not all such writing is fanciful, but fancifulness was and still is characteristic of much of it.

Brooke Horvath, writing as “someone who has taught and written about literature for more than thirty years,” responded to what he calls my “tar and feathering” of his subject with a robust defense of it (Letters, FI, June/July 2013). I myself taught and wrote about literature for more than thirty years, so my strictures were not made from ignorance.

The type of fancifulness I particularly had in mind in my criticism of Brodie was his discernment of supposed connections between different passages in a text, connections that reveal hidden but illuminating new meanings. This is certainly a technique that has been strongly developed in recent literary criticism. Rene Wellek and Austin Warren complained (in chapter 12 of their Theory of Literature, 1949) that hitherto scholars had concentrated so much on the “setting” of a work of literature that they showed an “astonishing helplessness” when confronted with the task of “analysing and evaluating” it. I. A. Richards agreed that it is the poem, not the poet, to which we must now attend and that a poem may contain more, and more that is of real value, than ever entered the mind of the writer. It is now commonly said to have a life of its own. We are to regard it as an independent entity—one with which we must deal directly, questioning it, serving it as the priest serves the oracle. The words and even the syntax have their profound significance but will yield their results only if we become meek and receptive. In his 1975 book The Search for Literary Meaning (pp. 147 and 149), A. P. Foulkes noted that practitioners of this “new critical” method have “gone so far as to publish literary anthologies which withhold information concerning the authors, dates of composition and so on.” He employed their own pretentious terminology to characterize them as constituting “essentially an anti-contextual movement which seeks to develop pragmatic meanings from connotative patterns which supposedly inhere within the structure of textual relationships.” What this means is that every allusion, every metaphor and simile that occurs in any part of the poem, however appropriate in its immediate context, supposedly also has some bearing on the main theme, or at least on other parts of the work. Foulkes added that, by 1958, Richards himself suspected that this kind of exegesis, which his own work had done so much to promote, was leading to fanciful results; he noted with some disquiet that “today, run-of-the-mill students” seem “able to find much more in Shakespeare than earlier readers,” and he asked: “Have they learned how to cultivate their garden more intensely, or is it just a novel conjuring trick?” Foulkes commented that the very posing of such a question suggests that Richards was beginning to feel somewhat like the sorcerer’s apprentice.

Horvath rightly stresses that today’s literary critics are far more sophisticated than their predecessors. Matthew Arnold, in his Essays in Criticism (1865 and 1888), did no more than select a few passages from authors recognized as superior and ticket them with labels such as “high beauty,” “power,” “spoudaiotes,” “liquidness,” or “fluidity of diction.” When he had selected a word with some sort of emotional coloring, he clung to it as if it were a talisman. Today, however, critics seek a theory of criticism that will enable them to write about poetry in a new and impressive jargon that suggests knowledge of psychology, anthropology, and philosophy. I discussed this matter briefly in my Belief and Make-Believe (Open Court, 1991), where I noted that William K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks, in their Literary Criticism—A Short History (1957), exemplify what I have in mind, both regarding the critics whose views they quote and in their own opinions. They say, about the latter:

The kind of literary theory which seems to us to emerge the most plausibly from the long history of the debates is far more difficult to orient within any of the Platonic or Gnostic world views, or within the Manichaean full dualism and strife of principles, than precisely within the vision of suffering, the optimism, the mystery which are embraced in the religious doctrine of the incarnation.

They do not tell us exactly what this doctrine is, nor how a plausible literary theory “emerges” from history “within” it, but they go on to say that what is required of successful verbal art “is not simply a complicated correspondence, a method of alternation, now sad, now happy . . . but the oblique glance, the vertical unification of the metaphoric smile. To pursue the ironic and tensional in the way most likely to avoid the Manichaean heresy will require a certain caution in the use of the solemn and tragic emphasis” (746).

A fuller account of the vices of literary criticism has been given by Ronald Englefield, who died in 1975. In his Critique of Pure Verbiage (Open Court, 1990), he showed in some detail, with examples from I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis, as well as from Wimsatt and Brooks, how critics characteristically rely on words that are sufficiently familiar but have such a vague and variable reference in the context in which literary critics set them that they remain strictly meaningless and so do not expose the writers to the danger of contradiction.

In my 1991 book, I noted that this development toward critical meaninglessness had been paralleled by a development among poets, playwrights, and novelists themselves toward meaningless originality. Although originality has often been admired in the arts, maximum effectiveness is achieved when it is tempered by a certain conformity to traditional rules and conventions; for although an artist who slavishly follows tradition will bore us, one who breaks with it completely will bewilder us. Artists and critics alike long recognized that the best results come from giving an established tradition a new twist, so that the old form can be recognized in the new product, which is nevertheless refreshingly new. Thus the nineteenth-century German dramatist Friedrich Hebbel stated (apropos of the public’s rejection of his play Der Rubin) that the public expects the poet to keep to some extent within the bounds of established conventions, while the poet may assume that these are in themselves no longer fully adequate to meet its expectations. And Ernst Mach, speaking in his famous Erkenntnis und Irrtum of a symphony by Schumann or a poem by Heine, said that a good deal of their charm comes from their “surprising variation of older turns and figures, which cheat our expectations in a pleasant manner. Without what is older and more trivial in them, they could neither have arisen nor be understood.”

But this combination of originality and convention becomes, over the centuries, more and more difficult. As the conventions are relaxed and modified, and then later the modifications are again modified, and so on repeatedly, the stage must eventually be reached when they are all annihilated, and originality is attained by means of every kind of freakish novelty. In a diary entry of 1836, the Austrian dramatist Franz Grillparzer admitted that even then, it had become difficult for modern writers to be novel without being freakish (gekünstelt). He knew too that there is such a thing as original nonsense and that originality is all too easy if no relation to reality is required. In his “Letters to a Young Poet” of 1903, the poet Rilke advised the recipient not to write love poems, to “avoid those forms which have become current and habitual,” for “they are the most difficult: great and mature capacity is required to give of one’s own where good, and to some extent, brilliant traditions are available in plenty.” In other words, it is hard to be effective in a field where so many have already worked so well, whereas if what one writes is novel, it cannot be compared and contrasted with any standard model. Hence, Rilke’s advice is that the young man should depict his own “sadnesses and wishes,” his “passing thoughts and belief in something or other of beauty.” If one sticks to recording one’s own thoughts and experiences, one will indeed be original—though not necessarily interesting. Uniqueness is common enough. We are all unique. In the final years of his life, Rilke was so original in the way he recommended that he wrote poetry about nobody quite knows what.

The way the situation has come to be the dissolution of all conventions can be seen from the so-called “new novel,” as expounded by Robbe Grillet and others in France. It must not, he told us in The New Statesman (February 17, 1961), “foster any resemblance” to the novel of yesterday, for “we must move on.” According to his account, the new novelist has nothing to say but merely searches for a way of saying something—a way, he strongly suggests, that involves no plot, attempt at characterization, analysis of feelings, or study of milieu—in fact, nothing that has ever been regarded as a merit in the novels of the past. He says expressly that in the new novel, the events are not narrated by the author but by one of the characters, preferably when in a state close to delirium. If this sort of writing becomes dominant, it will mean the end of fiction that exercises the reader’s capacity for imaginative sympathy with others or which includes thoughts worth pondering.

Altogether, addiction to near-meaningless statements is today evident not only in literature and literary criticism. Religion provides many examples of it. The sociologist Steve Bruce, surveying the overall scene in his Religion in Modern Britain (1995), finds that although traditional Christian beliefs have been widely abandoned, they have been replaced not with defensible ideas but with “a fondness for vague religious affirmations.” Our freedom to think and to express our ideas is all too often degraded into license to talk at random; people are satisfied with mere words and feel no need to relate them to clear ideas. In the concrete branches of science, words and phrases are kept in touch with real things and processes, so that nonsense is excluded or easily detected. But in other fields, the maxims propounded sometimes have no contact with reality, except that they can be verbally repeated in various combinations.


George A. Wells

George A. Wells is emeritus professor of German at the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the origins of Christianity and on German intellectual history.