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Now, literary critic R. V. Young surveys the dominant trends in literary theory of the past thirty years and concludes that the result has been a corruption of the teaching of literature, which is an essential part of a liberal education.
Young views the current controversy as an essentially spiritual conflict that has profound political implications.
At War with the Word seeks to transcend the politicization of literature and calls for a greater recognition of literature's role in developing the intellect and imagination of students.
The Old New Criticism and Its Critics
The pugnacious practitioners of academic literary studies agree about very little, but there is one consensus: the New Criticism—that is, the old New Criticism associated with the names of T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks—that New Criticism is over, finished, defunct. What is more, this shift in critical fashion is widely perceived not merely as a routine scholarly development, but as a great liberation or the lifting of an onerous burden. A newcomer to the scene might surmise that literature professors had been bearing the entire weight of The World's Body upon their shoulders, or that textbooks like Understanding Poetry and Sound and Sense constituted a form of bondage or an imposition upon the innocent credulity of English department faculties. Never again, they seem to proclaim, with a collective sigh of relief and the smug tone of a man conscious of having recovered righteousness, will we submit to that unhistorical formalism or subject our students to the cultural elitism of closely explicating "canonical works." Everywhere the atmosphere of classrooms and library bookstack carrels thickens with an almost palpable fog of sanctimony.
Now considered objectively, this is a very strange state of affairs. The New Criticism flourished during the thirties, forties, and fifties and remained influential even through the sixties when its dominance over literary study was everywhere challenged. During this time thestudy of literature in the modern vernacular languages was firmly established in the curricula of American universities; English and American literature, in particular, assumed a central role in undergraduate education and became a major focus of graduate training and academic scholarship. It is not too much to say that the achievements of the New Critics and their followers staked out the literary field and defined the university environment in which the revisionists now operate. If the movement known as the New Criticism had never occurred, it is improbable that the position and activities of literary scholars would be of much significance in contemporary higher education. Whatever shortcomings may have emerged in the New Critical program, whatever defects or excesses of method or substance may have stood in need of correction, one would expect the beneficiaries of the achievements of the New Criticism to regard it with at least an affectionate tolerance. Hence the current attitude among the denizens of English and foreign language departments, which ranges from severe disapproval to scathing repudiation, is more than a little surprising.
It is still more surprising when one realizes that the condemnation of the New Criticism is founded on misconceptions if not outright deceptions. In The Attack on Literature René Wellek has demonstrated conclusively and with breathtaking ease that the major accusations leveled at the New Criticism are "baseless." Wellek lists four common allegations against the New Critics: (1) that they are "formalists" with no interest in the human content of literature; (2) that they ignore the historical context of literature; (3) that they reduce literature to an abstract science; and (4) that the "close reading" practiced by the New Critics is a mere pedagogical device, an American version of explication de texte, fit only for American undergraduates in provincial colleges. Wellek is astounded by such allegations: "They can be so convincingly refuted by an appeal to the texts that I wonder whether current commentators have ever actually read the writings of the New Critics."
My own experience tends to corroborate Wellek's suspicion: more of the "current commentators" have probably read Frank Lentricchia or Jonathan Culler inveighing against the New Critics than have actually read the New Critics themselves. A good example is Linda Hutcheon's book about irony, which purports to treat irony as a "political issue" and worries about irony as a tool of " elitism." Hutcheon treats Cleanth Brooks with disdain, quoting a dismissive passage by Jonathan Culler on Brooks's supposed misuse of the idea of context in explaining irony; however, Hutcheon herself calls for a "new" understanding of irony that is "inclusive and relational: the said and the unsaid coexist for the interpreter, and each has meaning in relation to the other because they literally `interact' ... to create the real `ironic' meaning. The `ironic' meaning is not, then, simply the unsaid meaning, and the unsaid is not always a simple inversion or opposite of the said." This is a fine understanding of irony, but it is hardly an innovation. In a classic 1949 essay, Cleanth Brooks describes irony as "a dynamic structure—a pattern of thrust and counterthrust"; and after listing apparently contradictory implications in a poem by Randall Jarrell, Brooks argues that what results is not incoherence, but a complex of ironic tension:
None of these meanings cancels out the others. All are relevant, and each meaning contributes to the total meaning. Indeed, there is not a facet of significance which does not receive illumination from the figure.
Brooks thus succeeded in devising a fully "relational" and "inclusive" conception of irony when his most patronizing critics were still in diapers.
This kind of ignorant presumption could be merely dismissed were it not so infectious. In a book published a year after Hutcheon's, Heather Dubrow credits Hutcheon with furnishing a "new" understanding of irony that opens up new possibilities for the interpretation of John Donne:
The usual interpretation of irony ... would confirm the assumption that when Donne's speakers appear to be expressing Petrarchan sentiments, the poem really discredits Petrarchism. Yet irony, as Linda Hutcheon argues, should be seen instead as inclusive in the sense that both meanings are experienced, as is the third meaning that is formed by the relationship between them.
This passage provides less a discussion of irony than an example of it in its "usual" negative sense: Dubrow employs Hutcheon's "new" idea of irony to construct a reading of Donne that is, as we shall see further on in this chapter, a pallid imitation of Cleanth Brooks's groundbreaking interpretation half a century earlier.
It is doubtful, however, whether it would make any difference if Wellek's "current commentators" on the New Critics did bother to read them. The attack on the New Critics is not a mistake; that is, it is not based on a misunderstanding that could be cleared up to the satisfaction of all parties by a candid exchange of views. The New Criticism has not been vilified because of its errors and vices, which doubtless afflict it as all things human; it has been scourged for its virtues. It is not too much to say that the New Critics have been the victims of what used to be called in counterespionage circles a campaign of disinformation. The charge that comes up again and again in current discussions of the New Criticism is formalism, "an opprobrious term," Wellek notes, "used first by Marxists against a group of Russian scholars in the twenties."
The contemporary academic scene is steeped in Marxism (even though it is often unconscious), and "formalism" is the inevitable dismissive term in discussions of the New Criticism, even though it often seems to comprise a range of mutually contradictory accusations. The fundamental implication of the term is that the New Critics were concerned about literature only as an objectified verbal configuration, devoid of human significance and cut off from the realities of history. If this were true, however, the New Criticism would be a threat to no one and would hardly provoke such hostility and continued vilification. The fact is that the New Criticism is condemned not because it treats the literary work as an empty form remote from history and reality, but because it understands literary form in a way that undermines the materialist ideologies pervasive among contemporary academics and intellectuals. At their best, the New Critics stress not "mere form," but form as a structure of significance, an embodiment of human experience. By virtue of capturing experience in a verbal form and abstracting it from the flow of time—in other words, by creating aesthetic distance—the literary work of art furnishes unique and invaluable access to experience via contemplation and commentary. Far from evincing a lack of interest in history and the human condition, this view of literature, in fact, strengthens the relation between the author and history by treating the literary work as a portal into the meaning of the ceaseless currents of the historical process. Precisely insofar as it transcends the particular biases and individual purposes of its author, the immediate expectations and assumptions of its original (or any other) readers, and the political trends and socioeconomic circumstances of its era, the work of literature is a testimony to the inherent significance and purpose of human life.
Once we have considered the New Critics' take on form and history, the absurdity of the other common charges mentioned by Wellek becomes clear. An understanding of poetry that stresses irony and paradox hardly amounts to an emulation of the mathematical and empirical modes of scientific knowledge; rather, it urges us to recognize alternative ways of knowing that comprehend a broader spectrum of reality. Indeed, it is the New Critical vision of literature as a cognitive art that afforded this literary theory such a central place in higher education, and brings us to the last of the four allegations against the New Critics. Although it seems quixotic in our day to stigmatize any critical method that teaches students to read and write for being a mere pedagogical device, it is also true that the New Criticism, at least when it is not being abused, confers far more than a repertoire of techniques for verbal analysis. In regarding the literary work of art as a subsistent structure of meaning—that is, in granting it, in some sense, an independent ontological status—the New Criticism establishes the study of literature as a principal means of handing on the culture of Western civilization. This is an educational feat of critical importance, and it is crucially involved with the campaign mounted against the New Criticism in the course of the past several decades.
It is precisely the preoccupation with the meaning of the literary work that draws the opprobrium of postmodernist theory. At the beginning of the 1980s, Jonathan Culler fulminated against "the hegemony of New Criticism," which persists "despite the many attacks on it, despite the lack of an organized and systematic defense." This state of affairs, he maintains, is deplorable because "the most important and insidious legacy of the New Criticism is the widespread and unquestioning acceptance of the notion that the critic's job is to interpret literary works." Culler proffers a list of alternative tasks for criticism:
We have no convincing account of the role or function of literature in society or social consciousness. We have only fragmentary or anecdotal histories of literature as an institution: we need a fuller exploration of its relation to other forms of discourse through which the world is organized and human activities are given meaning We need a more sophisticated and apposite account of the role of literature in the psychological economies of both writers and readers; and in particular we ought to understand much more than we do about the effects of fictional discourse.
The list goes on, but the point ought to be evident. While traditional humanist scholars, especially literary critics, saw themselves as being engaged in a dialogue with a work of human intellect and imagination, postmodernist academics shed the traditional reverent attitude of the humanities in their hunger for the clinical indifference of the "human sciences." Literature as an "institution" is to be regarded, along with "other forms of discourse," as a phenomenon; works of literature are to be treated less as masterpieces than as specimens. "Human activities," including literature, have no inherent meaning; meaning is rather "given" in some arbitrary fashion through the systems or codes of the "institution," which is itself a construct, not a feature of human nature. In denying that literary works are "autonomous artifacts" because "they participate in a variety of systems," Culler implicitly reduces them to the status of anthills or beehives. A poem is to be analyzed not as a work of rational free will, but as a chemical reaction or any other natural phenomenon. When quasi-scientific analysis is thus substituted for interpretation, liberty is drained out of the chief object of study in liberal education.
William Cain's discussion of the New Criticism is even more impatient than Culler's, and it is based on the same disdain for the preeminence of the close reading of individual literary works. Cain's frustration is amplified by his realization that the success of the New Criticism was based on its efficacy as an educational tool: "In one of their most intelligent strokes, the New Critics devoted themselves not only to the reform of criticism, but also to the reform of pedagogy. Their methods were—and they remain—`teachable', more so than any other method yet devised." Writing in the early 1980s, Cain shrewdly observed that the real revolution had not yet occurred:
What we have is a curious phenomenon. The New Criticism appears powerless, lacking in supporters, declining, dead or on the verge of being so. No one speaks on behalf of the New Criticism as such today, and it mostly figures in critical discourse as the embodiment of foolish ideas and misconceived techniques. But the truth is that the New Criticism survives and is prospering, and it seems to be powerless only because its power is so pervasive that we are ordinarily not even aware of it. So deeply ingrained in English studies are New Critical attitudes, values, and emphases that we do not even perceive them as the legacy of a particular movement. On the contrary: we feel them to be the natural and definitive conditions for criticism in general. It is not simply that the New Criticism has become institutionalized, but that it has gained acceptance as the institution itself. It has been transformed into "criticism," the essence of what we do as teachers and critics, the ground or given upon which everything else is based.
Cain is mystified and frustrated by this state of affairs: a small band of professors from mainly Southern universities and colleges—that is, in the most impoverished and culturally isolated region of the United States—succeeds within a generation in transforming the study of literature in American higher education and, indeed, throughout the world. This New Criticism is then subjected to more than two decades of scathing and relentless ridicule, and yet, when Cain writes, it remains "institutionalized" in the scholarly practice and the curricula of English departments around the world. The one explanation that seems never to occur to him is that the New Criticism in some measure is "the essence of what we do as teachers and critics," that careful interpretation of works of demonstrable literary excellence necessarily lies at the heart of literary study.
The validity of this proposition is indicated by the decline of literary study over the ensuing fifteen years since Cain called for the disestablishment of the New Criticism in university English departments. His complaint was essentially an allegation of "formalism" without actually using the word: "We read texts, poems in particular, because we feel that they are far better, richer, more deeply textured and organically unified than any world that we know from daily experience. Returning to the text means, in this sense, turning away from the world and dwelling within the verbal structures that literature provides." Literature is not enough of a subject in itself, literature professors must turn to the "world"; and involvement with the world means involvement with other disciplines, especially history and the social sciences: "To affirm that literature must be studied in its historical richness, its relevance to the present, and its relation to modern society is not to weaken or disfigure the integrity of criticism. It is, rather, a sign of our confidence in the power of literature and criticism that we feel able to teach and write `critically' in other ways and through other disciplines."
This is a plausible claim as long as one neglects to think about it. Consider the analogy of medicine: physicians as physicians have a far greater and more beneficent influence upon the "world" by maintaining the disciplinary integrity of their practice than by allowing medical judgments to become distorted by social or political considerations. The AIDS epidemic furnishes a discouraging negative exemplum. The obvious public health approach to an epidemic caused, overwhelmingly, by dubious and preventable human behavior (promiscuous sexual activity and intravenous drug use) would be to discourage the behavior and, when necessary, quarantine the carriers of the virus. Instead, strictly medical judgment has been clouded by widespread radical sympathy with "transgressive lifestyles," and governmental agencies have been encouraged to distribute condoms and clean syringes, measures of questionable value that implicitly condone the activities that transmit the disease. Try to imagine the American Cancer Society recommending that smokers buy filter-tip cigarettes, and that social workers distribute cigarette-holders to adolescents who may begin smoking.
William Cain's recommendations for reforming literary criticism and literary education amount to a similar corruption of a particular discipline by the kind of leftwing social agenda that has since been described as "politically correct." In his "Conclusion" he maintains that literary excellence is irrelevant to literary criticism and education: "[T]he question is not whether the canonical texts are `great' (though one could quarrel in particular cases) and should be `read' with care but is whether we should base our teaching on them and go on identifying English studies with their explication." He suggests that Uncle Tom's Cabin, although it is deplorable as literature, should play quite as substantial a role in the curricula of American literature as Moby Dick, a work whose institutional status, he implies, is owing to an arbitrary set of critical norms. He offers as a central work of American literature the autobiography of Booker T. Washington, notwithstanding its flaws: "Up from Slavery is written in a flat, prosaic style; it is rough-hewn, awkward, rambling, anecdotal, and loosely organized." Now it is certainly true that Washington's autobiography is an important work—historically, politically, socially—and it is not inconceivable that it might reasonably be studied in a course in American literature. To make such a work the foundation of a curriculum, however, is to study history, politics, or sociology rather than literature. Both Uncle Tom's Cabin and Up from Slavery have exerted more immediate force on society as a whole than Moby Dick, but Melville's novel is not competing in the political arena. Its influence is more subtle, more profound, and more lasting because it operates aesthetically; that is, it touches individuals in the intimate reaches of their moral and spiritual being by leading them to meditate on what it means to be human. The ultimate purpose of academic literary study is to enhance the response of students to books that confront them with ultimate questions; in the long run such questions affect the world at least as much as public policy issues.
If the methods and attitudes of the New Criticism were still pervasive when Cain first published his screed, then even he must be astonished by the speed with which his project has succeeded. In universities and colleges across the country, literature has been banished from freshman composition courses, displaced by what amounts to indoctrination in political correctness: students keep journals, work in small groups, and revise their writing endlessly in response to "peer" critiques. The topics are current events and issues shaped by writers of an almost exclusively ideological perspective. Traditional literature surveys and courses devoted to particular periods and genres and to great authors are giving way to "culture studies," which focus on marginalized groups and trendy social issues: "Emigrant Woman," "Gay Cinema," "Slave Narratives," and so on. As John Ellis points out, courses in literature in departments of English and foreign languages are rapidly abandoning any focus on the study of literary excellence defined by specifically artistic criteria in favor of a preoccupation with a particular ideological agenda: "Many now regard social activism as the major purpose of literary criticism, and social activism of a very specific kind: the primary issue in all literary texts is the question of oppression by virtue of race, gender, and class. They view the very idea of a canon of great works as an elitist notion and even question whether there should be a distinction between literature and other kinds of writing; that, too, is elitism."
The educational results have been uniformly catastrophic, but, although there is indisputable evidence of a general decline in the academic standards of colleges and universities and in the performance of students, the usual response of administrators and the most vocal segment of faculties has been to deny the gravity of the news and to shoot the messenger. The rancor that has greeted the work of Allan Bloom and E. D. Hirsch and the activities of organizations like the National Association of Scholars is typical: although neither Bloom, nor Hirsch, nor the membership of the NAS can be characterized as "conservative" in any conventional political sense, they have been condenmed as "elitist" and "reactionary," and opprobrious terms like "racist," "sexist," and "homophobic" have been hurled at them. Increasingly, radical academics will unblushingly assert that there is no educational crisis, because traditional norms of knowledge and skill should enjoy no particular privilege, and because one set of cultural conventions is as good as another. Linda Hutcheon provides a telling example:
To argue, as I have been, that the reason why irony is "universally accessible"... might have less to do with interpreter competence than with the need for shared discursive context, is to shift the terms of the discussion away from notions of elitism toward an acceptance of the fact that everyone has different knowledges and belongs to (many) different discursive communities. I personally find this a healthy corrective to the loud lamentations of the late 1980s that young people were losing what was claimed to be some sort of homogeneous, general cultural knowledge.... My own sense, right or wrong, is that they simply have different cultural knowledge, and that their communities' ironies are as often incomprehensible to me as mine (or Swift's) are to them.
Presumably Hutcheon sees no difference in worth between Gulliver's Travels and Wayne's World, between the Coronation Mass and the latest CD by Crash-Test Dummies. These are all just different forms of "cultural knowledge," and there is nothing anomalous in the notion that idle, self-indulgent adolescents should set up (with a great deal of aid and encouragement from unscrupulous commercial interests) their own "culture" in opposition to the accumulated wisdom of centuries of Western Civilization. It is no wonder, then, that the New Criticism has become anathema to the regnant ideology of the contemporary university: the central goal of New Critical pedagogy was to instill in students the habit of critical discrimination—an abiding sense of the distinction between what is witty, profound, and meaningful, and what is shallow, fraudulent, and cheap. The New Criticism insisted that the experience of reading, say, a Faulkner novel was inherently superior to smoking a joint and watching a Madonna video, not in spite of but because of the intellectual and moral effort required.
It is important to recognize the ideological inclinations that make precisely these virtues of the New Criticism—its commitment to intellectual and artistic excellence, its insistence on the vigorous life of the mind—anathema, because it is such ideological prejudice that is the root of our current academic disaster. Although the language and tone of the current university setting are broadly Marxist, it is perhaps most helpful to conceive the radical predilections of the modern world according to the Gnostic paradigm formulated by Eric Voegelin. Gnostic dualism both despises the material creation and sees it as decisive in forming the character and conduct of human beings: the evil that men do is not attributable to the sinful will of the individual; it is rather an intrinsic and hence inevitable result of physical existence. This aspect of Gnostic belief is reported not only by its ancient Catholic enemies, like St. Augustine, but also by sympathetic contemporary commentators, like Elaine Pagels. At the same time, the Gnostics also believe that those who attain to a special knowledge or gnosis become part of an elite group who rise above the condition and destiny of ordinary mortals. Combine this with empirical science and technology, and the result looks very much like modern Marxism: the entirety of human reality, including the "superstructure" of culture and society, derives from the material forces and conditions of the economic "infrastructure." Individual human beings and all their relations with their fellow creatures are thus products of physical causation—as in the mythology of Gnosticism, with its wicked creator demiurge, the material world is an essentially evil place where the lives of human beings are reduced to a condition of miserable servitude to the necessities of physical existence. Yet again there is the elite, now comprising radical intellectuals and politicians, able somehow to escape the fateful determinism of material life and, in the wake of the industrial revolution, forge a utopia in which all aspirations are realized, all desires gratified.
Obviously, only a small minority of contemporary academics would expressly subscribe to an overt Marxism, and few of my acquaintance could even identify Gnosticism with confidence; nevertheless, a set of analogous attitudes permeates a broad range of the academic community, and the influence of Marxism and associated ideologies has become especially notable among literature faculties in recent years. As John Ellis observes, Fredric Jameson, an apologist for Mao and Stalin, is "arguably the most influential of all American literary critics." The worldwide embarrassment of Marxism as a political option seems to have had no effect at all:
The considerable vogue of Jameson's writings compels us to confront an exceedingly strange fact: just at the time when in the real world Marxism was collapsing so completely that its viability as a political theory seemed almost at an end, its influence in the universities of the English-speaking world was increasing just as dramatically.
This influence is evident in a pervasive malaise in the academy—a discontent with the limits embedded in the actual nature of the human condition—and with concomitant, if contradictory, preoccupation with autonomy of the individual and the exaltation of his subjective longings. The literary critic in this frame of mind will be inclined to approach a story or a poem or a play less as an imaginative rendering or revelation of the structure of reality than as an open-ended vehicle for the free play of individual fantasies.
Now it is not hard to see why the New Criticism, with its insistence on the objective integrity of the literary work, would represent an affront to the contemporary academic ideologue. At its inception the New Criticism was, among other things, a reaction against the impressionistic "appreciations" of literature by genteel literary dabblers, against the late Romantic worship of the author as prophet or genius, and against a school of literary history that buried individual works under a mass of trivial details about influence and fashions while usually eschewing the serious task of critical judgment. The New Criticism was, above all, an assertion that a piece of fiction or poetry or drama could matter, could have significance in and of itself.
Such a view of the literary work entails certain metaphysical and moral premises incompatible with the radicalism that now dominates academic and intellectual life. First, the New Criticism implies a denial of materialism, of the view that the physical realm of empirical phenomena exhausts the whole of reality. Almost all of the New Critics insist that the proper end of literary study is the work itself conceived as an independent object, and that investigations of the author's biography, of the historical situation in which he wrote, of the work's "reception history" and relations to other works of literature—all of this is ancillary to the interpretation and evaluation of the work itself. These premises assume that a literary work exists independently of any particular copy or all of them collectively (the work itself is not constituted by ink and paper in the way that a painting as such consists of canvas and pigment), of the interests and purposes (conscious or unconscious) of the author, or of the responses to or experience of the work on the part of any particular reader or collection of readers in any given time or place. A work of literature, then, stands as a testimony to the independence of the human spirit from material necessity: a man who can create in words a structure of significance that transcends the constraints of physical causation, or who can respond to it with sympathy and understanding, is himself by that measure a transcendent being; that is, he is a free, rational agent. By the same token, the work of literature in some ways rehabilitates that very material universe: it is seen neither as the realm of sheer darkness and despair of the ancient Gnostics nor as the meaningless grinding process of their Marxist heirs, but rather as a purposive design in which mankind is, or ought to be, temporarily at home. Literature is precisely man's imaginative ordering of his experience of the world.
The moral implications of the New Criticism are equally repugnant to the reigning academic ideologies: if a literary work is a sign of human freedom, it is also a reminder of the limits of that freedom. As a representation of reality, a literary work is a manifestation of the structure of reality that exists independently of, and sometimes in conflict with, individual expectation and desire. As an embodiment of meaning apart from author and interpreter alike, the literary work is a witness that human beings can discover significance, but not manufacture it. The New Criticism responds affirmatively to what we might call the moral realism of great literature. Consider, for example, how many tragedies manifest the dignity and grandeur of human beings as morally free agents who yet can degrade and destroy themselves through the proud abuse of freedom and a refusal to respect the limitations inherent in the nature of reality. The interpreter of drama is free to explore the richness of such a play and draw out as much as he can of its inexhaustible significance, but he must respect the integrity of the text and acknowledge its meaning as its own and not his.
It is significant that virtually every effort to discredit the New Criticism also involves an attack upon the objective integrity of the literary work of art, along with the concomitant exaltation of the reader or interpreter. Here again modern academic ideology, with its Marxist underpinnings, resembles ancient Gnosticism. "The gnostic understands Christ's message," Elaine Pagels reports, "not as offering a set of answers, but as encouragement to engage in a process of searching." What is sought is not a true interpretation of the message, but a unique, wholly subjective self-realization. The authority of canonical scripture and the apostolic tradition are set aside in favor of the individual's interior divinity. "Many gnostics, then, would have agreed in principle with Ludwig Feuerbach, the nineteenth-century psychologist, that `theology is really anthropology,'" Pagels remarks, and she adds, "The gnostic movement shared certain affinities with contemporary methods of exploring the self through psychotherapeutic techniques." Gnosticism provides a useful model because the ancient Gnostic, like the modern Marxist, is preoccupied with escaping or transforming an unsatisfactory reality in the interests of personal domination or self-satisfaction. Because of its fictionality, literature can be regarded as an apt vehicle, but only if it is severed from reality by the denial of its status as a representation and rendered malleable to the will of the interpreter.
The various debates between the New Critics and the traditional literary historians and between the New Critics and the Chicago Aristotelians back in the 1940s and '50s tended to be either personal or technical—matters of tone and temperament or emphasis and degree. In principle they were nearly all resolvable. Beginning with the "archetypal" criticism of Northrop Frye, however, many attacks upon the New Criticism grew out of a fundamentally incompatible understanding of the nature and purpose of literature. Frye endeavors to reduce all works of literature to a collection of variations on a few basic myths, universal in a vaguely Jungian sense, and he deprecates value judgments and hierarchical discriminations deriving from aesthetic considerations. After all, if what is distinctive about a work of literature is its embodiment of an archetypal myth, then its unique features as a specific work will hardly be prized. From Frye's quasi-religious perspective literature is a kind of secular scripture, with its authority drawn not from its own inherent revelatory features, but rather conferred by the interpreter, for whom each work serves as a vehicle for his own mythic fantasies and wish-fulfillments.
In the four following decades, numerous literary theorists, however ferocious their mutual hostility, share a disdain for the integrity of the literary work so cherished by the common enemy, the New Critics. It turns out that the New Criticism is an ideological enemy because literature as such—imaginative literature: poetry, fiction. drama—is an ideological enemy. René Wellek quotes Roland Barthes asserting that "literature is constitutionally reactionary" and then, somewhat incredulously, proceeds to argue that Barthes is mistaken, that literature and literary figures have in fact often been in the vanguard of social protest and revolution. One is reminded of E. D. Hirsch's frustrated astonishment at radical demands for the dismantling of traditional humanist disciplines in education. Surely everyone must recognize, Hirsch maintains, that it is only by mastering the verbal skills and traditional knowledge that are required by civilized literacy that one will be able to effect social changes and do away with injustice.
The exasperation of Wellek and Hirsch as well as many others is understandable, but it mistakenly assumes that today's academic radicals are interested in reforming Western society and its cultural institutions when, in fact, they are mainly interested in obliterating them. Wellek himself points out that a leveling nihilism is at the heart of the matter: "All these objections to the concept of literature have one trait in common: they do not recognize quality as a criterion of literature; quality that may be either aesthetic or intellectual, but which in either case sets off a specific realm of verbal expression from daily transactions in language." From the perspective of the ideologues who currently dominate the literature departments of universities. literature is a conservative force because it implies a standard of discrimination and judgment. Literature affronts Marxist materialism insofar as it lays claim to a transcendence of physical causes and conditions; insofar as it thus exists apart from the mind and will of any interpreter literature is an affront to Gnostic elitism—a limit on the will to appropriate the power of the word.
The New Critics regarded the study of genuine works of imaginative literature as a powerful civilizing force because it is educative in the strict sense: it is a means of leading the student out of the narrow, self-interested realm of individual ego and of the blinding constraints of what we now call the "peer group," but which Plato called "the Cave." It is a confrontation with landmarks of cultural tradition whose significance and authority persist from generation to generation and provide norms of thought, feeling, and behavior. In the New Critical scheme the work of critics and scholars is ancillary to the masterpieces that constitute literary culture. Their task is to define and identify literary excellence and through interpretation to point out how literature represents and reveals the nature of reality.
Now it is precisely for its high regard for literary quality that the New Criticism is currently disdained. As Heather Dubrow and Richard Strier, editors of a collection of New Historicist essays, aver in their introduction, "New Criticism distinguished and privileged `literary' language; the characteristic richness and ambiguity with which literature was associated was [sic] seen to render it a far fitter object of study than other types of texts, such as descriptions of cities or political tracts." Now we know better: "... today scholars of the English Renaissance are intensely concerned with the connections between literary texts and social and historical phenomena—and, indeed, with collapsing the boundaries suggested by those very distinctions." In other words, the distinction between works of literature and what used to be called historical documents, while it cannot be denied without altogether sacrificing intelligibility, is deprecated; whatever is written is a "text," and all texts are equal. The same strictures apply to discriminations among different levels of fiction: no distinction is allowed between serious literature of aesthetic merit, or at least pretension, and what once would have been called subliterature, pulp fiction, or Kitsch. Occasionally an especially egregious example surfaces in the newspapers—the doctoral dissertation on Madonna comes to mind—but "scholarship" dealing with "popular culture" is a growth industry; and, in addition to the countless explicit examples, the mentality of popularization has infected the study of traditional parts of the curriculum. Perhaps the most revealing indicator of the situation is the number of college professors who seem to spend more time listening to hard rock and watching MTV than reading poetry.
There are two main consequences of all this: the reduction of literature to the material of sophistry—so much grist for the ideological mill—and the concomitant exaltation of the critic or interpreter, who takes precedence over the putative object of his inquiries. Frank Lentricchia maintains that the effort to interpret a text objectively is merely a form of collaboration with the political status quo, since "Literature is inherently nothing; or it is a body of rhetorical strategies waiting to be seized." His former Duke colleague, Stanley Fish, argues that when the interpreter approaches a literary text not with the aim of demonstrating its meaning and value, but rather of persuading his audience to accept it on his terms, then the interpreter supersedes the text:
But perhaps the greatest gain that falls to us under a persuasion model is a greatly enhanced sense of the importance of our activities. (In certain quarters of course, where the critical ideal is one of self-effacement, this will be perceived to be the greatest danger.) No longer is the critic the humble servant of texts whose glories exist independently of anything he might do; it is what he does, within the constraints embedded in the literary institution, that brings texts into being and makes them available for analysis and appreciation. The practice of literary criticism is not something one must apologize for; it is absolutely essential not only to the