I am going to bend Matthew Arnold a bit today, but I do not believe I will break him.
A long chunk of “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” is devoted to the critical principle of “disinterestedness,” or rather an accusation that English critics lack disinterestedness, that the critics and their magazines are too concerned with “the practical spirit,” which sounds like it might be an ancestor of today’s battle of STEM and the humanities, but in fact is a reference to political and religious controversy. Catholic journals review these books in this way, Whig journals review those books like that, and nobody reviews writes about the books especially well. Nobody in England – French and German critics are more effectively disinterested.
I do not know the extent to which any of this is true. Arnold, or his followers, are moving toward some notion of objective and scientific criticism. As Arnoldian as I am, I am also enough of a creature of my own time to know better than to argue for objective literary criticism. Much less, Lord help us, scientific, which is not really Arnold’s word.
In a narrower sense than our normal usage, though, I will defend Arnold’s objectivity. He calls criticism “’the endeavor, in all branches of knowledge… to see the object as it really is’” (“Function,” Arnold is quoting himself). Emphasize “endeavor,” which can come from many directions, take decades or centuries, give little more than glimpses even after great effort, and often fail entirely, and we are not so far from the common usage of “subjectivity.”
To try and approach truth on one side after another, not to strive and cry, nor to persist in pressing forward, on any one side, with violence and self-will, – it is only thus, it seems to me, that mortals may hope to gain any vision of the mysterious Goddess, whom we shall never see except in outline, but only thus even in outline. (“Preface” to Essays and Criticism)
Not one side or another, but one side after another. Arnold uses words like “perfection” and “truth” and, snort, “mysterious Goddess,” in ways that would not be useful now, but passages like this one remind me that much of the difference between his idea of good criticism and mine are largely rhetorical.
To the extent that the varied pieces in Essays and Criticism are demonstrations of Arnold’s principles, they look a lot like the kind of thing published today in the New York Review of Books and London Review of Books, just longer and with more extensive quotations. Arnold’s model won the fight for the center, at least for a time. “[T]he great art of criticism is to get oneself out of the way,” he wrote in “Pagan and Mediaeval Religious Sentiment,” another of the pieces in Essays and Criticism.
Now I will bend Arnold. It has become clear to me through book blogs that many thousands of intense, dedicated readers reject Arnold’s model as too impersonal. They want the critic to get in the way sometimes, maybe all the time. Criticism is part of the endeavor to see the subject – the self. Literature becomes a means to reveal the self. Disinterestedness? You have got to be kidding.
Memoirs and personal writing are of course forms with their own value, but this hybrid of criticism and memoir seems to me like something new. For a long time, I have been skeptical of its value. I read or have read hundreds of blogs, but I have typically read around the memoiristic stuff in search of insights about literature, which I do often find. My skepticism has weakened, though, and perhaps ironically reading objective Arnold finally did it in. I should look for “the best that is known and thought in the world” wherever I can find it. I should learn a new approach, maybe not learn to do it but at least to read it.
For the next couple of days, let’s try a few of these out.