"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

29 May 2005

“The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”

excerpts from the essay by literary critic Roger Rosenblatt, originally published in The American Spectator in 1972

Rosenblatt notes the reactions of most people when confronted with the fact of his profession -- the teaching of English. After the inevitable "Oh, I'll have to watch my grammar," there is the question of what exactly the English professor does -- what does it mean to teach literature, why does one teach literature, and is it of any actual value to do so? This essay, then, is Rosenblatt's apologia for literary criticism. The following excerpts especially struck me, and I will, for the most part, let them speak for themselves.

“I start with a working definition a little narrower than the general designation of literature as written work of enduring importance. For the teacher of English who deals directly or indirectly with people, literature must also deal with people, and it must be good. Literature, then, is the beautiful and orderly expression of human activity in written words. It deals with people, and it does something good. In the highest uses of language it shows our common heroism, cruelty, capacity for gentleness and stupidity, our resilience, friability, magnanimity, selfishness, our blunderings and grace. In short, among the arts it is the most comprehensive expression of our humanity. Accordingly, literary criticism is the instrument by which such expression may be made clear or clearer (clarity not being necessary to beauty or order), made known or more widely known. What beauty may mean I leave to the proving power of the individual critic. The larger point is that literature does something good, and that literary criticism also does something good, though it is not the same good.”

Literary criticism, Rosenblatt says, has five parts, which he summarizes as follows (emphasis added): “To disclose the secrets of a work of literature is to see something clearly for its various components; to know its patterns is to see something steady and whole; to recognize its worth is to make informed evaluations; to appreciate its precision is to appreciate the act of saying what one means; to understand that what you’re reading is not what you’re living precludes your corruption of either. Done right, literary criticism teaches these things, and the learning of them in turn reminds some people at least that such revelations and processes are not inborn, but must be continually coaxed from us, restated and rehearsed, lest we once again convince ourselves of our latent divinity. The function of literary criticism at the present time – are you ready? – is the advocacy of common sense.”

“In a world of ever increasing sentimentality it is essential to know how to probe, unravel, and evaluate all sorts of grand constructs, and in so doing to be able to recognize one’s proper relationship to them. This is the basic sanity of literary criticism.”

And his final paragraph, which says what most of us are afraid to claim, and yet . . . without the skills the literary critic teaches, how can we understand our world and both form and articulate our beliefs about how to live well in it? Perhaps he speaks arrogance, but he says what I have often thought -- not with arrogance but with terror:

“The purpose of this essay was to report that a literary critic and teacher does something. That done, I leave to others the task of determining that among the various walks of life ours is the most enlightened, the most humane, the most scrupulous and intelligent, and the most essential to national security. For the moment it is enough to note that in the history of human communications there have been relatively few men and women [the great writers] who have heightened our language and the account of our thoughts and actions to a degree where we would look upon ourselves with as much fear and wonder as we would look upon the gods. Then there are some others [the critics] whose commonplace job it is to remind us that we are only human, a condition complicated and tough enough in itself without seeking higher office, and at times quite splendid, almost satisfactory. These others are saints. One does not ask a saint what he does for a living.”


Susannah said...

At the NY C.S. Lewis society meeting last night, I picked up one of their old bulletins. One of the articles in it-- on C.S. Lewis as a critic, by someone called Linda V. Lusk; I have no idea who she is-- had a shorter excerpt from the Rosenblatt essay-- just the paragraph that begins "To disclose the secrets..." I was googling around just now looking for the complete essay and came across your post-- and your lovely blog. Thanks for the excerpt-- thanks for your writing-- and I'm so sorry about your father.



Beth Impson said...

Thanks for visiting and for your kind words, Susannah. I tried to post a comment about your poem "Holy Saturday" but it looks like it didn't publish. In case not, I really enjoyed it; it was an encouragement.