Philosophy of Literary Criticism

Once upon a time, in my salad days, when I was green in judgment, I was fervently political. I used to passionately submit my political beliefs to the public at large, and I would condemn anyone who represented opposing view points. But I am no politician, no lawyer, nor could ever be, for I take ideological matters far too much to heart. Even though the candidate that I supported ousted what I believed was a dynastic regime of greed and xenophobia, the poisonous political culture in which America has found itself has nevertheless since jaundiced my beliefs and led me to see that no prosperity or concern for individual human rights is possible so long as America remains a capitalistic government as such. One person — a dedicated husband, father, and teacher, full time in all of these occupations — cannot make a difference in our government, much less in its policies; and so, I have resigned myself from politics. I become too angry, too alienated from others, and too worn out for my own good.

Literature, to be sure, lends itself to an equal amount of anger, alienation, and wearing out for any practicing reader, and yet inexplicably, paradoxically, I find myself at home among arguments in this branch of thought. Perhaps this is because I have always, on some level, subscribed to the ancient notion that we read because we cannot possibly know enough people in life: through reading, we meet more people (i.e., characters) in our lifetimes than we would if we otherwise never picked up books; and through literature’s most sublime characters, we possess an endless supply of humanity, from its most altruistic to its most depraved. The wisdom, the beauty, and the terror that emenate from our best literature will indefinitely lead us to new conclusions and realizations about who we are, about why we are here, and about why our “enterprises of great pitch and moment” matter at all. Politics, to be sure, has a vastly more narrow focus: whereas the ideas within our greatest works of literature apply to every human being on the planet, the ideas within any political movement apply to only a portion. It is for this reason that I eschew any so-called “literary study” that attempts to apply a political belief to a work of literature, for these political studies will tell us a great deal about the political studies, but nothing about the literature. Take, for example, Terry Eagleton‘s Heathcliff and the Great Hunger (1995), a Marxist study of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: in addition to frankly fabricating the notion that Heathcliff is a refugee from the Irish potato famine (which is in no way present in Bronte’s book), Eagleton makes a series of arguments and commentaries that flesh out the Marxist ideology but tell us little about Wuthering Heights, much less about any of the aforementioned conclusions and realizations. Simply put, works such as Eagleton’s are not literary studies, for they study political ideologies, not literature.

Thus, in the realm of literary criticism, I find it difficult to align myself with any one school. I am certainly no “literary Marxist,” or “literary feminist,” or even a “literary historicist” (new or old), though I certainly find many ethical agreements with Marxism, feminism, and historically-centered cultural studies outside of literary analysis. I do not even subscribe to psychoanalytic criticism, though I find many critical affinities with that approach. I agree with Aristotelean criticism insofar that I believe all literary studies should be text-centered; but I otherwise disagree with Aristotle’s notion that all literature must be moral, or at least have one.  I suppose that in the end I can only refer to myself as Longinian, for my approach best aligns with that of the Roman literary critic Longinus, whose sole extant work, On the Sublime, may not even have been written by him. This treatise attempts to define the sublime as it appears in literature, and in so doing argues that the greatest writings comprise powerful, contemplative thoughts, intense emotions, c0mpelling figures of speech, cultivated diction, and lofty syntax. These five requirements seem to me to the only criteria a literary critic — that is, one interested in studying literature — needs when examining a given text. I refuse to burden myself with impossible quests, like the discernment of Shakespeare’s sexuality or Homer’s attitude towards women (or whether or not Homer was a woman), for as intriguing as these topics are, they ultimately tell us nothing about our literature’s cognitive and aesthetic accomplishments.

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