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LITERARY CRITICISM

 

LESLIE FIEDLER 1967 BY JAC. DE NIJS

Leslie A. Fiedler

 

 “Thomas Mann believed that the best measure of the spiritual health or illness of a culture is its art.”  –Rollo May, The Cry for Myth (1991)

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LESLIE A. FIEDLER (1917-2003) [MA, PhD] Professor of English, lecturer, Fulbright scholar, University of Montana, SUNY Buffalo, Rockefeller Fellow, Guggenheim Fellow, Visiting Professor, Jay B. Hubbell Award in American literature: 1946 and on….  Fiedler’s first critical work appeared in 1948 and came about from his habit of reading American novels to his sons.  The essay appeared in Partisan Review, becoming the subject of much critical debate.  “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” argued that a recurrent theme in American literature was an unspoken or implied homoerotic relationship between men, using Huckleberry Finn and Jim as examples.  Pairs of men flee for wilderness rather than remain in the civilizing and domesticated world of women.  Fiedler also deals with this male bonding in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Waiting for the End (1964), and The Return of the Vanishing American (1968).  [Ref. Wikipedia et al.]

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Fiedler’s major work, Love and Death in the American Novel (1960, 1966), offended many critics because of the manner in which he discusses American literary tradition–and reconsiders the concept of the Great American Novel: how it is both derivative of, and separate from, the established European novel forms. 

He believed that literature is “more than what one learns to read in schools and libraries, more even than a grace of life; that it is the record of those elusive moments at which life is alone fully itself, fulfilled in consciousness and form.” 

**“I cannot help feeling that the chief problem of teaching anything in our atomized period lies precisely in the fact that the ordinary student cannot or will not connect the few facts he knows, the slim insights he has previously attained, the chance extensions of sensibility into which he has been once or twice tempted, into a large enough context to make sense of the world he inhabits, or the works of art he encounters.  ONLY CONNECT!  should be the motto of all critics and teachers.”

“Four major sources of indebtedness I feel moved to acknowledge…:  C. S. Lewis The Allegory of Love [taught me the sense in which love is an invention and the poets its inventors] … certain Marxian critics [the class-relations of a culture help determine the shape of its deepest communal fantasies, the obsessive concerns of its literature] … Freud and his followers, and Carl Jung [for the concepts of the conscious and the unconscious, and archetypes] … D. H. Lawrence Studies in Classic American Literature [of all the literary critics who have written about American books, he is the one who has seemed closest to the truth]”

“Anyone who, in full consciousness, surrenders the hope of heaven…for the endurance of hell…has entered into a pact with Satan…writing a gothic novel…devoting a long fiction to terror rather than love…is a Faustian commitment.  …  The primary meaning of the gothic romance … lies in its substitution of terror for love as a central theme of fiction … of sex denied … of vicarious participation in a flirtation with death.”

“Certainly the three novels granted to be our greatest works are gothic in theme and atmosphere: Huckleberry FinnMoby DickThe Scarlet Letter … In each book, the Faustian bargain stands at the focus of action.”

Hawthorne writes The Scarlet Letter “in the form of a love story an elegiac treatise on the death of love, a portrayal of the attenuation of sex in America.  …the first American tragedy.”

“One of the troubling mysteries of our life is that we can only know as adults what we can only feel as children; and Huckleberry Finn [the greatest of all books about childhood] manages to evoke the lost world of boyhood with all the horror and loveliness it once possessed for the child who lived it.  …how truly wonderful it is to remember our childhood; and yet how we cannot recall it without revealing to ourselves the roots of the very terror, which in adulthood has driven us nostalgically to evoke that past.”

Moby Dick can be read not only as an account of a whale hunt, but also as a love story, perhaps the greatest love story in our fiction, cast in the peculiar American form of innocent homosexuality.”

***Fiedler at his best: “Among the assumptions of [the tragic Humanists] Melville and Hawthorne: the world of appearance is at once real and a mask through which we can dimly perceive more ultimate forces at work; Nature is inscrutable, in some sense alien; in man and Nature alike, there is a ‘diabolical’ element, a ‘mystery of iniquity’; it is impossible to know fully God or ourselves, and that our only protection from destructive self-deceit is the pressure and presence of others; that to be alone is, therefore, to be lost; that evil is real and that the thinking man breaks his heart trying to solve its compatibility with the existence of a good God or his own glimmering perceptions of goodness.  The writer’s duty is to say ‘Nay!,’ to deny the easy affirmations by which most men live, and to expose the blackness of life most men try deliberately to ignore.  For tragic Humanists, it is the function of art not to console or sustain, much less to entertain, but to disturb by telling a truth which is always unwelcome; and they consequently find it easy to view themselves in Faustian terms, to think of their dangerous vocations as a bargain with the Devil.”

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In the scheme of Fiedler criticism of characters in the novel, there exist the Dark Lady, the Fair Maiden, the Good Good Girl, the Good Bad Girl, the Bad Girl, the Bad Good Girl; the Good Good Boy, the Good Bad Boy, the Bad Boy, the Bad Good Boy…

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“Literary critic Harold Bloom wrote that Heart of Darkness had been analyzed more than any other work of literature that is studied in universities and colleges, which he attributed to Conrad’s “‘unique propensity for ambiguity.’”  [Wikipedia information]

“Let’s take in an old movie tonight.  Have you seen The Hunger?”  “Will I like it?”  “It is delicious.”

the-hunger-movie-poster-1983

Many claim to have a hunger for knowledge.  Knowing about the types of critics may satisfy that hunger. 

https://memoriesofatime.blog/2016/04/29/being-more-critical-some-kinds-of-critical-approaches-or-helps/

Should you like to dig you teeth into an oldie-but-goodie–but a special treat–locate a copy of The Dynamics of Literary Response by Norman N. Holland (1968).  You will not go away unsatisfied.

He writes that our first pleasures that quieted us were oral pleasures, satiating our hunger.  We were held by a mother, nurtured by a mother.  Here is the foundation for taking in “pleasure”–artistic or literary.  Yum!

From there, remember memoriesofatime being read to, and how pleasurable it was, being cuddled or curled up to someone or in someone’s lap?  More gratification and satisfaction.

And we curl up and watch a good movie with some ice cream.  Or our movie-going or movie-watching is a feast sometimes, actual appetite satisfaction with popcorn and soda (pop), Twizzlers, and perhaps even nachos.

We read or attend, for pleasure, maybe even receiving pain; but we manage feelings that are virtual.  Even though, as Holland says, we “devour books,” and are sometimes “voracious readers,” taking it all in.

The Psycho Critics help us find our way through the maze of our dreams and fantasies, help us clarify muddled images, awake or not.  And even help us understand art and literature through knowing our earliest awarenesses of gratification and satisfaction.

All that food and drink (and drugs) in movies do play a role in our “liking” or “not liking” a movie.

https://memoriesofatime.blog/2015/11/18/psycho-critics-how-literature-works/

 twizzlers

 https://memoriesofatime.blog/2013/09/13/dirty-harrys-favorite-food/

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“And the Oscar goes to La La Land….  No!  No!  Wait!  That can’t be right.  It isn’t right.  The Oscar goes to Moonlight!”  “Huh?”

It’s complicated, this movie reviewing stuff.  But maybe reviewing is simply a matter of telling persons who are busy what is better to see than to see something else, simply what NOT to see: “Don’t waste your time.”  “It’s a waste of money.”  “Don’t bother.  See X instead.”

However, do I want a review, or a formal analysis of a movie?  “Thumbs Up” or 5-Stars, or cultural response, production history, or values discussion?

What do you NEED to make you WANT to see a particular movie: old, new, classic, recent, color, black and white, documentary, drama, comedy, Netflix, Redbox, STARZ, Cobb Theatres; story, technology, actor or actress, theme, technique–and more, much more?  Does the critic count for you?  Explanation and evaluation?    

“Critics would be useful people to have around if they would simply do their work, carefully and thoughtfully assessing works [of art], calling attention to those worth noticing, and explaining clearly, sensibly, and justly why others need not take up our time.”  –John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (1978)

SO: Watch these movies for “greatness”–or NOT!”

UP IN THE AIR

CASABLANCA

P.S. I LOVE YOU

A GOOD YEAR

LOVE ACTUALLY

JERRY MCGUIRE

ALIEN

BLADE RUNNER

THE HOURS

THE ENGLISH PATIENT

GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING

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“Art is meant to be experienced, and in the last analysis the function of criticism is to assist that experience.”  –David Daiches (1956; 1981)

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“A great work of art may provide us the opportunity to feel more profoundly and more generously, to perceive more fully the implications of experience, than the constricted and fragmentary conditions of life permit.”  –Louise M. Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration (Noble, 1968)

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Underlinings and Notes from A Literary Education by Joseph Epstein (Axios, 2014)

“Apart from those people trained as professional scholars or scientists, we are all finally autodidacts [self-taughts[, making our way on our own as best we can, with our real teachers being the books we happen to read.”

“…the best that any university can do is point its students in the right direction: let them know what the intellectual possibilities are and give them a taste of the best that has been thought and written in the past.”

“…literature, largely though not exclusively imaginative literature, provides the best education for a man or woman in a free society.”

“While novelists may have a plenitude of ideas, or deal with complex ideas in their work, it is rarely their ideas that are the most compelling things about their work.”

“A literary education establishes a strong taste for the endless variousness of life; it teaches how astonishing reality is–…”

“…a literary education teaches the limitation of the intellect itself, at least when applied to the great questions, problems, issues, and mysteries of life.”

“A literary education teaches that human nature is best, if always incompletely, understood through the examination of individual cases [and] those cases that…prove no rule–the unique human personality.” 

“…  [I]t provides an enhanced appreciation of the mysteries and complexities of life that reinforce the inestimable value of human liberty…”

. . .

Epstein quoting Marcel Proust: “Our intellect is not the most subtle, the most powerful, the most appropriate instrument for revealing truth.  It is life that, little by little, example by example, permits us to see that what is most important to our heart, or to our mind, is learned not by reasoning, but through other agencies.  Then it is that the intellect, observing their superiority, abdicates its control to them upon reasoned grounds and agrees to become their collaborator and lackey.”

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“Socrates was the first person to distinguish between the ability to criticize literature and the ability to compose it.”  –Abercrombie

Is old criticism still “good” criticism?

“The realm of criticism is occupied by the activities of three distinct powers: the power to CREATE; the power to ENJOY; the power to CRITICIZE.

“The powers to criticize can be acquired, with process and system to be studied, and deliberately put into practice.

“There are no principles which will tell you how to create literature, nor how to enjoy it.”

“Criticism consists in asking and answering rational questions about literature.”

Basically two kinds of criticism, or critical inquiry, can be determined: studying the function of literature, the nature of literature, the theory of literature (aesthetics).  The second, criticism proper, may be called practical criticism (studying unique qualities in actual concrete examples of literature).

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“The history of criticism has been very largely the history of attempts to formulate rules for criticism.  But rules derived from some particular instances in one kind of literature…have been found wanting.

“Only the principles which express the nature, and define the function, of literature in general can determine what is essential in any kind of literature; and only by appealing to what is essential can criticism provide itself with trustworthy rules.”

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So where does one begin?  At the beginning: “The first and most celebrated of all systematic theories of literature?  Aristotle’s Poetics.”  [That’s old.]

“Aristotle raises almost all the problems out of which emerge the principles required by criticism for its security.”  (But he doesn’t always solve the problems satisfactorily, yet he compels us to consider them exactly.  How could he ever imagine a Catcher in the Rye or À la recherche du temps perdu–or even Joyce’s Ulysses?)

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“A critic is one who expresses a reasoned opinion on any matter especially involving a judgment of its value, truth, righteousness, beauty, or technique;  one who engages often professionally in the analysis, evaluation, or appreciation of works of art or artistic performances.”  [standard dictionary definition]

But what gives them the right to say those things?

They have the job!  We do not…

We give them the power over us–or at least over what we read, see, and hear.  Nevertheless, they are also expressing their own opinions–as we have opinions.

Whom to believe?  For the most part, it’s a matter of taste and style.  A good critic likes what we like and hates what we hate, writes the way we would like to and reviews the things we like to read about.  A bad critic doesn’t.

THERE ARE FEW ESTABLISHED RULES IN THE FIELD OF CRITICISM–AND FEWER CRITICS’ TRAINING INSTITUTES.

Yet we can look at training in the field of alleged expertise and the ability to communicate effectively when judging the critics we read or listen to.

And what about their reputation among peers?  the effort they expend?  their “readability”?

We have to decide whether we want to read the work of others.  We must be critical of the critics, though, if we have our own standards.  And standards we MUST have.

BE READY TO BE YOUR OWN CRITIC.

“Every effective…critic sees some facet of…art and develops our awareness with respect to it; but the total vision, or something approximating it, comes only to those who learn how to blend the insights yielded by many critical approaches.”  –David Daiches

GOOD PEDAGOGY: “Tell ‘em what you told ‘em”:  [See https://memoriesofatime.com/category/artistic-ventures/ ] HISTORICAL (H): concerned with historical “facts”; FORMALISM (F): concerned with the text (alone); SOCIO-CULTURAL (S): concerned with the text as social commentary; PSYCHOLOGICAL (P): [FREUD]: studies author/artist, work/characters, reader/viewer; MYTHOPOEIC (M): [JUNG]:  tries to present a work as the verbal aspect of ritual. 

CRITICAL READING SKILLS: Seeing/reading what’s there for sure; understanding what we put there; and what it means to us in the greater scheme of things, the “big” picture.”

Finally, review “Comprehension and Critical Reading”: https://memoriesofatime.com/2015/06/30/comprehension-and-critical-reading/

and

“Critical Reading and Skills”: https://memoriesofatime.com/2015/07/11/critical-reading-and-skills/

Finally,

“The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art–and, by analogy, our own experience–more, rather than less, real to us.  The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.”  — Susan Sontag
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“Every effective…critic sees some facet of…art and develops our awareness with respect to it; but the total vision, or something approximating it, comes only to those who learn how to blend the insights yielded by many critical approaches.”  –David Daiches

What is New Criticism?  Deconstructionism?  Formalism?  Historicism?  Psychoanalytical?

Here is perhaps a simplified (not simple) help that a reader or viewer might use to bring to a work of art (mostly literature and film, that might use “standards”) to help with some understanding, beyond the first impression–which is normal: “I liked it!” or, “Thumbs up!” or, “Five stars!”  What to say next?

So begin (if you care to):

HISTORICAL (H): concerned with the text, language, biography, influences, historical “facts” (then); Is this the real accurate text?

FORMALISM (F): concerned with the text (alone): its form, style, structure, meaning, effect (from text), the “textual approach”

SOCIO-CULTURAL (S): concerned with the text as social commentary (needs to be a historical first); about morality, economics, and cultural beliefs (then, primarily).  Sees the text as a document of political influence.

PSYCHOLOGICAL (P): [FREUD]: studies author/artist, work/characters, reader/viewer.  The “on-the-couch-method” that is rich, looking for motivation, for answers to the whys of actions or of likes and dislikes.  (Does not always have to be about dreams and cigars.)

MYTHOPOEIC (M): [JUNG]: by using all four previous approaches, uncovers or tries to discover patterns of ritual or seasons, to present a work as the verbal aspect of ritual with archetypal patterns.  Within a work “myth” is the narrative”; archetype is the “significance.”  Hand washing in a film may not be simply hand washing….  What is the book Hansel and Gretel doing in the film I, Robot?  (The most complex but, perhaps, the richest approach to literature.)   

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