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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).

***

“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.”

***

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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In the study of literature, using the PSYCHOLOGICAL approach, one type of critic places emphasis upon subjective perception and emotional response to an aesthetic experience.

The “objects” of study are

the writer/author/artist

the work (characters/personae)

the reader/viewer and reactions/responses

in addition to the study of the creative process.

Literature helps us reveal ourselves to ourselves; yet literature often is expressing the author’s unconscious in symbolic terms without awareness. Images, connotations, desires, repressions become significant in a work.

HOW IT ALL WORKS (in a “perfect” situation):

The literary work is presented as a text. We use knowledge of the language to perceive the text as things we know in life/reality. Consciously we supply an intellectual meaning to the text by the process of abstraction.

We supply theme/meaning by thinking about the work as a separate entity: We reality test it. We experience the work by INTROJECTION, taking it into ourselves, feeling the nucleus of fantasy and the formal management of that fantasy as though it were our own. By ANALOGIZING, we bring to the work our own highly individualized fantasies.

Fantasies are not “good” or “bad”: only those that please or displease. So “good” now means that which pleases, and pleases for a long time.

However, MEANING is not there simply: it is something we construct for the text within the limits of the text. It is transforming unconscious relevancy to conscious relevancy.

So: “literary meaning” conveys an idea that all the details of the work are “about,” a “point” to which all the individual words, or events, or images in a literary work are RELEVANT.

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“The great books are those that tradition, and various institutions and authorities, have regarded as constituting or best expressing the foundations of Western culture…derivatively the term also refers to a curriculum or method of education based around a list of such books.

Mortimer Adler lists three criteria for including a book on the list:

the book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times;

the book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit;

the book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.” [Wikipedia]

TODAY:  In Defense of a Liberal Education (2015) by Fareed Zakaria is a “great book.”

YESTERDAY:  The Idea of A University (1854) by John Henry Newman is a “great book.”

Here are some other “Great Books”:

Classical/Old Fashioned, but not-outdated sources for reading/reading skills:

Art and Reality— Joyce Cary (1957)

The Dynamics of Literary Response--Norman N. Holland (1968)

Great Books–David Denby (1996)

How to Read a Book–Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren (1940; 1972)

Literature as Exploration–Louise M. Rosenblatt (1937; 1968)

On Moral Fiction–John Gardner (1978)

Perspectives in Contemporary Criticism–Sheldon Norman Grebstein (1968)

Principles of Literary Criticism–Lacelles Abercrombie (1932; 1960)

Understanding Fiction–Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (1943; 1959)

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From

 On Moral Fiction (1978)

Notes put together from the book; each passage could be a starting point for discussion.

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Criticism, like art, is partly a game [but the game has a point].

My basic message . . . drawn from Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, and the rest, and a standard in Western civilization down through the eighteenth century . . . : TRUE ART IS MORAL: it seeks to improve life, not debase it.

Trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art.

Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.

Art re-discovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness.

The critic’s proper business is explanation and evaluation, . . .

To understand a critic, one needs a clear head and a sensitive heart, but not great powers of the imagination.

Criticism and art, like theology and religion, are basically companions but not always friends. At times, they may be enemies.

True art is a conduit between body and soul, between feeling unabstracted and abstraction unfelt.

Dullness is the chief enemy of art.

True art is too complex to reflect the party line.

True art is by its nature moral. We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values.

**Morality is nothing more than doing what is unselfish, helpful, kind, and noble-hearted, and doing it with at least a reasonable expectation that . . . we won’t be sorry for what we’ve done. Moral action is action which affirms life.

True morality [is] life-affirming, just, and compassionate behavior.

Great art celebrates life’s potential, offering a vision unmistakably and unsentimentally rooted in love.

In art, morality and love are inextricably bound: we affirm what is good . . . because we care.

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.

A good book is one that, for its time, is wise, sane, and magical, one that clarifies life and tends to improve it.

The chief quality that distinguishes great art . . . is its sanity, the good sense and efficient energy with which it goes after what is really there and feels significant.

The true artist’s purpose, and the purpose of the true critic after him, is to show what is healthy, in other words sane, in human seeing, thinking, and feeling, and to point out what is not.

The theoretical border between art and madness seems to be, then, that the artist can wake up and the psychotic cannot. When Hamlet plays mad, he takes a step toward real madness. Sanity is remembering the purpose of the game.

**The business of civilization is to pay attention, remembering what is central, remembering that we live or die by the artist’s vision, sane or cracked.

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Notes from an old college handout, 1960

By Abbé Ernest Dimnet [1866-1954]: “Dimnet invites the reader into a state of honesty, where he [or her] evaluates himself [or herself] as a thoughtful human being.” (Wikipedia)

“Whatever we read, we must first comprehend and, when we have comprehended, criticize.”

“Comprehension is the first and essential step in reading.”

“There is an abyss between people who want [literature] to be as accessible as the morning paper and people in possession of, or in search of, culture.”

“Criticizing is only another aspect of the effort to comprehend. The word in its etymology means ‘to judge,’ and, in fact, we think of a critic as a competent, not carping, judge.”

“Teachers should attach the greatest value to the school exercise called literary analysis.”

A student must acquire the habit…not to receive anything as true or beautiful, but to consider everything as a problem.”

“We should be given the habit of critical attention so that our first contact with anything worth the effort will give us as keen an impression as we are capable.”

“Comprehension is criticism, and criticism or judgment is a mere synonym for THOUGHT.”

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