Sunday, February 17, 2019
The New Criticism And POMO Literary Theory
First this: this
Subject to two big qualifications I’ll mention in a minute, I was with you by and large until I read this:
….The problem with literary theory is that it is not proper “theory.” At best, it is hypothesis without predictive value. There may be some descriptive capacity in literary “theories,” but they do not predict anything about prose or poetry…
How could a theory— a plausible general principle or body of principles offered to explain something—of literature, which in its case can only be descriptive account of it, be predictive? What could it, or any theory of literature, predict? Wellek and Warren, who wrote the classic Theory Of Literature wouldn’t, I wouldn’t have thought, have made any claim for their theory having any predictive value. Neither, I’d say, would Frye.
The first qualification is to distinguish between POMO literary theory or literary critical thinking and the New Criticism, which saw/sees literary works as marked by paradox, tension and often by deliberate ambiguity as they emerge from the way in which language is used and, so to say, build into a literary world, a coherent whole. Wellek and Warren say that in literature “world” is equivalent to “‘attitude toward life’ or tone implicit in the world…”
They argue the need to see a literary work as a totality and for a view of form as naming “the aesthetic structure of a literary work—that which makes it literature…that which aesthetically organizes its ‘matter.’” For them, a literary work is a self defining totality with its own mode of existence, which is to say, is its autonomy: “the novelist offers…a…world…recognizable as overlapping the empirical world but distinct in its self-coherent intelligibility.” And it’s world view that Frye describes when he identifies form as “meaning holding the poem together in a simultaneous structure.”
The second is that in the elucidation of form and meaning as one, students, teachers and critics are doing something rigorous and disciplined, something that, like anything taken seriously, is easy to parody. Sometimes parody is apt but it can be facile and callow when the seriousness of the parodied project is actually worthwhile. The elucidation of the techniques and meanings of great works is worthwhile and it doesn’t exclude more casual reading and reviewing.
So Bellow’s playful cri de couer fails on at least one big ground: he conflates the discipline of literary study, necessary but not necessarily fun, with reading and reviewing purely for enjoyment. The effects of the former can deepen the the joy of the latter.
And, finally, this piece, while it is clear and correct in its critique of literary theory, suffers from failing to distinguish between on one hand, the New Criticism and the theory of literature it rests on, which wants to go to heart of works to understand them, all worthwhile, and, on the other, POMO literary theory, which reduces works to texts exemplifying somebody’s systematic (and always reductive) account of the way things are. In that, texts are vehicles for understanding that exemplification and are secondary to it, next to incidental. Here the grounds are fertile for parody.