17 February 2005

Ironically appropriate

Before I begin commenting on John Harwood, here's a recent post at The Reading Experience (which I've also referenced elsewhere) to bring you up to speed:

It so happened that the dominant critical approach to literature in the 1940s, 50s and 60s became the New Criticism, a method of "close reading" that had the happy consequence of focusing the student's attention on the formal qualities of "literature itself," but it was surely inevitable that this critical method would come to be supplanted by others, since, again, the goal of studying literature was to develop critical approaches to literature, not to admire it for its intrinsic worth--although, again, New Criticism did seem to encourage this respectful attitude. [...]

It also happens that New Criticism is a critical approach for which I have a great deal of sympathy, although I also have problems with its unstated ambitions--for many of the New Critics literary study was intended to become through its respect for "the text" almost a substitute for religion [...] But in my opinion the most destructive legacy of New Criticism has been the process it initiated whereby Critical Methodology became all-important, inevitably leading to the creation of new methodologies deemed superior to the preceding ones, finally leading to the installation of "critical theory" as we now know it as the sine qua non of literary study. As a result, we have been led to forget: Before there were departments of literature and literary study, there was no literary theory as such. Writers and readers got on perfectly well without it.

Harwood specifically locates the beginning of this trend in the academy's appropriation of T.S. Eliot, asserting that he was "elevated to the position of dominant theorist by first-generation academic critics precisely because he was not an academic. He had to be endowed with a coherent theory of literature because the founding fathers could not affort to be seen (even by themselves) as cutting their coat to suit the institutional cloth. It is ironically appropriate that a man who made his reputation partly by inventing his own tradition should have been enlisted, despite his continued objections, as principal backer and guarantor for a critical enterprise which had never existed in the form necessarily adopted to secure its place in the academy" (102).

I also find it "ironically appropriate" that lit bloggers (from both within and without the academy) are opening up the discussion and appreciation of literature to those of us desperately longing for informed discussion without having to scale the walls of the ivory tower.

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