Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The great art of criticism is to get oneself out of the way - Arnold's disinterestedness

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.


  1. That's sort of the whole problem with "truth," though, innit? You can be as honest as you can be and simply say "this is what I see," but you can't do without the "I." The speaker/observer is always present, and always (hopefully) interested, always (hopefully) having a point of view. Other than getting reactions to art, what is there? Mere description? I am no doubt simplifying all of this. I also have no idea what I'm doing as "a book blogger," or even if that's what I am. But I'm a reader of literary criticism, so I should look up Mr Arnold.

  2. Oh good. I see a difference. Mostly "yes" to all of that. But I do not think description is "mere."

    I'll describe my book blog fantasy here. What I thought book blogs would be as a place to publish amateur criticism.

    I thought of them as a place where we could all, per Nabokov, "fondle the details" of literature. Look at this passage, or line, or word - isn't it amazing?

    William Hazlitt's criticism is not so different than this, and he is in the line as one of the great English critics. Often Hazlitt is not even describing, but just pointing. Maybe to two lines of Shakespeare or something like that, with a "description" like "good, right?" That's a paraphrase.

    Our reading - mine - is so patchy and distracted and piecemeal that the simple act of pointing can be valuable criticism. "Wow, I missed that!" And no training or theoretical sophistication is required to point. Just reading.

    There is in fact a lot of this kind of thing, some of it pretty great. But what I did not realize was how many people also wanted to point at themselves. "Look, there I am, right in the book."

    The Arnold-like critic is constantly turning outward. Sure, the "I" is always there, but the question is "How can I understand this book?" I had no idea how often the questions would be inward-directed. "How does this book understand me?"

    1. "Look at this," yeah, I get that completely. Ma femme and I are always reading to each other from the books we're at, sharing our fun, like we're on safari, each looking out a different side of the Land Rover at different wild beasts. Or some other, less imperialistic image of your own choosing.

      I also know that I read books, in general, like a guy who's trying to figure out what makes a book good so he can steal it, whatever it is. So my reading is cannibalistic, selfish, and greedy. I'm also, I think, looking for more than the details. I haven't a clue what that "more than" is. I hope it's not myself.

  3. I think there's a lot in between memoir and "disinterestedness." I am not typically that excited when criticism becomes autobiography (unless the autobiography is either exceptionally interesting and/or exceptionally well told) -- but I do like to have a sense of who the critic is. I don't want the critic to get in the way but to show the way, perhaps.

  4. If you are saying that Arnold was advocating for objective, impartial, somewhat scientific criticism in which only the text mattered (and nothing about the critic or the author or the reader matters), then I suppose New Critics would have embraced our view of Arnold's approach. However, setting aside all of the theories that have followed the New Critics, I remain convinced that no critic can be a robotic, objective analyst. So, what is the alternative? Critics need to understand themselves, and then be clear to themselves and their readers about what they are bringing to their criticism. Pretending to be 100% "objective" is an unethical deception. No one is that perfect.

    1. De Quincey's essay on The Knocking on the Gate, in Macbeth is my model for really fruitful nonobjectivity, with his, "The effect was, that it reflected back upon the murder a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity; yet, however obstinately I endeavored with my understanding to comprehend this, for many years I never could see why it should produce such an effect," which is so close to Borges' description of a nightmare: "Retold, my dream is nothing; dreamt, it was terrible [...] the nightmare is, above all, the sensation of horror." De Quincey, approaching that scene in the play as if it is a dream, makes the solution to the question necessarily personal; it is a dream-mystery, and a dream needs someone to dream it. Q.E.D.

  5. Once we start enjoying criticism, reading it for pleasure, we want to know who the critics are, much as we want to know who authors are. How much "we" want to know varies a lot of course. But I have read a Wayne Booth book about his efforts to play the cello, so, yeah, is what I am saying. Rohan, did you read the last Tim Parks bit, on exactly this subject? It is the nadir of the idea of knowing about the critic. Starts out okay, but destroys itself at the end. Go ahead, read it, it's terrible. No, stop, what am I saying?

    Scott, that is just how I read, except that you might do something with what you steal, while I just horde it for some obscure neurotic reason. I'm looking for more than details, too, but I felt this was a realistic view of the potential of book blogs. We were likely to be at our best working kind of small.

    Now, the other really valuable things amateur critics do is write about books that do not get or never got the attention they should, but that role is easy to understand. Lots of amateurs with all kinds of approaches and interests do useful work there. Preaching to the choir.

    RT - You know, I have no idea what Ransom and that crowd thought about Arnold. Arnold was definitely not a proto-New Critic in that he cheerily went far beyond the text. History, biography, philology, at least two literary traditions - he insisted the critic get to know at least one non-English tradition - all of this was available for use by the critic. Arnold saw literature as improving, both for individuals and culture as a whole, with the critic as part of the process of improvement. I did not really understand how that last bit worked. I will have to read Culture and Anarchy.

    You are right about the robotic critic. That is why it was so reassuring to come across passages like the "mysterious Goddess" bit above, where Arnold makes it clear that he is not claiming anywhere near 100% objectivity or perfection but something much more modest. Sometimes his rhetoric does seem to be moving towards the robot.

    The De Quincey essay is a much better example than the Stevenson I had been planning to use, except that De Quincey is so much more difficult.

    If only the trend were towards more criticism like The Knocking on the Gate!

  6. Good point about literary criticism being best when pointing at good things. As Cleanthes said in one of Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: theories should thus be demonstrated or 'refuted in the same manner, by illustrations, examples, and instances, rather than by serious argument and philosophy'.

  7. Often a single example puts a theory in disarray. The theory is not necessarily refuted, but it has to back to the shop for revision.

    Even some quite sophisticated criticism can be broken down into an exercise in pointing, a complex succession of pointing. "Look at this, and now this, and now this," where each item by itself is not so special but taken together are a thing of beauty.

  8. I like your point, in your comment to my blog post today (great minds think alike but go in different directions?) that objectivity is something to strive for. It makes me think of the end of Ulysses: "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
    I like to "fondle the details" of literature as much as anybody, but I don't feel like that invites people in as much, so they can also love what I'm reading. I like to think of what I do as what Rohan says--not getting in the way, but showing the way.
    I also think you have a very good point about our reading being piecemeal, and so the act of pointing is itself a kind of criticism.
    The number of readers and commenters you consistently attract attests that striving for objectivity works, that people do want to read that kind of criticism on blogs. I can't imagine wanting you to change your style very much, unless you want to play with different genres or different types of critical approaches for different posts. That might be fun to see.

  9. You've spawned such an interesting conversation! I've not read Arnold but I've read about him and it is my impression that he is going for a balance between imagination and rational thinking; creativity tempered by reason as opposed to the Romantics who relied so very much on emotion. Please correct me if I am wrong!

    I like your book blog fantasy and you are a shining example of its execution. How one approaches blogging seems to reflect one's motivation for reading in the first place and how one goes about it. There is a definite continuum from I liked/hated this book to the digging deep for gems and an audience for all of them.

    I'd very much like to read Culture and Anarchy sometime especially since Arnold went whole-hog into education reform and had a great influence on literature and the hows and whys it should be taught in school.

  10. I agree with Stefanie - you've spawned quite an interesting conversation.

    We've all read blog posts (I've even written them!) where the blogger may block the view of the work, but the opposite end of the spectrum is the completely impersonal writing - or worse, stringent "academese" - one can often find in non-amateur critics. Of course, most blogging is rarely aimed at specialists, and one thing I appreciate about the blogging world is its "anything goes" wildness, its sumptuous banquet of high and low.

    If the criticism, in whatever form, can be additive - can enrich or even extend a work - that seems a big plus, and whether that's accomplished personally or impersonally seems secondary (although I'm wracking my brain trying to think of a truly exemplary memoir-ish piece of criticism, though I'm sure they exist…).

    What about other forms of criticism that seem to do creative end runs around the personal/impersonal poles? I'm thinking, for example, of a work I read recently, Saramago's novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which is almost as much a work of criticism of Fernando Pessoa as it is a work of fiction.

    In any case, your bringing up these questions, as well as your own approach to blogging, I find inspiring and additive - not just in your restraint as regards inserting the personal or your focused, delightful "fondling of details," but also your blog's exemplary and instructive value. I learn a lot - and not just about literature - from reading Wuthering Expectations. The literary blogging world is a far better place for it.

  11. I should put Jeanne's closely related post here, too.

    Jeanne, the odds that I ever do much of this, that I change my style, are dang low. But I can learn to read other people better. That's really my hope.

    Stefanie, I think "balance" is a good word. Of course, compared to Shelley, Carlyle, Ruskin, etc. it is not so hard to look like the balanced one. But even in his manifesto he is not especially dogmatic.

    I did omit the entire subtext, which is that "Function of Criticism" is an apology for abandoning poetry for criticism. I had enough to do.

    I have a notion that the "additive" aspect of criticism that Scott describes is actually part of the positive case for objectivity. Give me a hundred partial, subjective, biased approaches to a book and I may be able to get somewhere. I've read that many blog posts about Jane Austen and Jane Eyre.

    Have you read that Geoff Dyer book about D. H. Lawrence, or I guess, somehow not about Lawrence? That is an attempt to blast through the personal / impersonal distinction. I haven't read it. Some critics somehow make everything personal - Montaigne, Kraus, anyone who is a comedian disguised as a critic, like Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. I don't know. Good question.

    I appreciate all the kind words.

    1. I think I am starting to understand a bit more what you mean by objective. It is such a difficult abstract thing to pin down and I tend to view the idea of the objective as a monolithic I have the answer pov that does not allow for discussion as though one can read a novel or poem and be completely outside of it and not allow one's own personal response and experience to touch that opinion at all. But I am pretty sure that isn't where you are coming from. Everyone has biases but those subjective Jane Austen posts tend to not bother examining what they are and it ends up being one big gush about how Jane can do no wrong which, when you come down to it, is as equally impossible to refute as the monolithic Objective.

      I really wish there was more public discussion about criticism (as opposed to academic which tends to shut out the amateurs) but sadly it is a shrinking endeavor, which makes book blogs even more important in some ways. I have not read the Geoff Dyer book but I have heard interesting things about it. I've not considered it in light of criticism, just lumped it in with biographies that do interesting things, but I might have to reconsider it. The thing with Montaigne making everything personal is that it doesn't stay that way. He manages to make it about something more than that and use the personal in an interesting way to ground a more far-reaching and sometimes abstract discussion. I think many times these days writers never manage to launch themselves very far past the personal.

    2. I was thinking specifically of Dyer even before you mentioned him. I've only read his book on Tarkovsky's Stalker, but if ever there was a work of criticism that mixed in the personal it's that one. I didn't love the book, but I admired its audacity in taking the personal response head on such that Dyer doesn't merely stand in front of the work, but utterly forces the reader to face him. In the end, it seemed to me like a book intentionally aimed at exploring the personal within criticism - which, thanks to blogs, is now all over the place - and thus, as you say, to "use the personal in an interesting way to ground a more far-reaching and sometimes abstract discussion."

  12. Lately I have been interested in criticism and its place in both our culture and our personal lives, at least in context of those of us who consider reading to be a grand hobby.

    With that said my knowledge of this area is rudimentary at best. It seems to me that all sorts of criticism is useful to an extent. I do think that an important point is that if a critic has a lot biases influencing the criticism, that the reader at least be aware of the biases. Such biased criticism I believe can be useful and enlightening in such cases.

  13. Criticism! Why do so many of us make it so complicated. In my simple-minded view, here is the basic formula: Evaluate the text, pointing out what is or is not effective(based on enunciated criteria), and explain why or why not it is effective -- always mindful that we are communicating to someone else. All the rest -- the jargon, the theoretical perspectives, the techniques -- are beyond and beside the point. In other words, let's keep it simple. Yeah, I know. My approach is simple-minded (and suspiciously like New Criticism). So be it.

  14. Reading and thinking about these poses has reminded me of Denis Donoghue's The Practice of Reading, in which he has a chapter proposing three main ways of reading via Arnold, Pater, and Wilde. It has been a while since I read the book, but looking at my notes I see he identifies with Arnold a desire to see "what is there in a particular work," with Pater a shift towards subjective response and focusing on the impression the work makes on the reader, and with Wilde a view of the work as the occasion for a new work by the writer. Interesting taxonomy, anyway.

  15. Donoghue's division sounds right. Maybe next year I will work on Pater. That could be fun. All these book bloggers are Paterians but don't know it.

    RT - The idea that New Criticism keeps it simple is amusing. I remind you that "simple" is a dirty word at Wuthering Expectations. I refer you to "Good Readers and Good Writers" in Nabokov's Lectures on Literature.

    Brian - The way to become aware of a critic's "biases" is to read the critic. It will all be clear soon enough.

    The Marxist critic gives me one insight into a book, maybe, and the Freudian another and the deconstructionist another, and the Austen gusher yet another, sometimes - "but only thus even in outline."

    I have gone back and forth with the example of Montaigne. How personal is that stuff, really? You are right, Stefanie, that his aim is always outward, but then what seem like abstract or external ideas may also be a significant part of who he really is. I wonder if my conception of "personal" is often much too narrow.

    Dyer is a pioneer in this new or newish form, I think, as is Sebald. For many of them the blend is between fiction and criticism, which is another consideration that I do not really understand.